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Contesting the Saudi State

The terms Wahhabi or Salafi are seen as interchangeable and frequently

misunderstood by outsiders. However, as Madawi Al-Rasheed explains
in a fascinating exploration of Saudi Arabia in the twenty-first century,
even Saudis do not agree on their meaning. Under the influence of mass
education, printing, new communication technology, and global media,
they are forming their own conclusions and debating religion and poli-
tics in traditional and novel venues, often violating official taboos and
the conservative values of Saudi society. Drawing on classical religious
sources, contemporary readings and interviews, Al-Rasheed presents an
ethnography of consent and contest, exploring the fluidity of the boun-
daries between the religious and political. Bridging the gap between text
and context, the author also examines how states and citizens manipu-
late religious discourse for purely political ends, and how this manipula-
tion generates unpredictable reactions whose control escapes those who
initiated them.

madawi al- r a she e d is Professor of Anthropology of Religion at

King’s College, University of London. She specialises in Saudi history,
society, politics and religion. Her recent publications include A History
of Saudi Arabia (2002) and Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf
Cambridge Middle East Studies 25

Editorial Board
Charles Tripp (general editor)
Julia A. Clancy-Smith, F. Gregory Gause,
Yezid Sayigh, Avi Shlaim, Judith E. Tucker

Cambridge Middle East Studies has been established to publish books on

the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Middle East and North Africa. The
aim of the series is to provide new and original interpretations of aspects of
Middle Eastern societies and their histories. To achieve disciplinary diversity,
books will be solicited from authors writing in a wide range of fields including
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emphasis will be on producing books offering an original approach along the-
oretical and empirical lines. The series is intended for students and acade-
mics, but the more accessible and wide-ranging studies will also appeal to the
interested general reader.

A list of books in the series can be found after the index.

Contesting the Saudi State
Islamic Voices from a New Generation

Madawi Al-Rasheed
University of London
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo

Cambridge University Press

The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK
Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:

© Madawi Al-Rasheed 2007

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of

relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place
without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published in print format 2006

ISBN-13 978-0-511-26867-0 eBook (EBL)

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A prince is always compelled to injure those who have made him the new ruler,
subjecting them to the troops and imposing the endless other hardships which
his new conquest entails Niccolo Machiavelli The Prince

Glossary page viii

Map xxi

Introduction: debating religion and politics in the

twenty-first century 1
1 Consenting subjects: official Wahhabi religio-political
discourse 22
2 Re-enchanting politics: Sahwis from contestation to
co-optation 59
3 Struggling in the way of God abroad: from localism to
transnationalism 102
4 Struggling in the way of God at home: the politics and
poetics of jihad 134
5 Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and the jihad
obligation 175
6 Searching for the unmediated word of God 211
Conclusion 254

Notes 263
Bibliography 292
Index of personal names 303
Index of place names 306
General index 307


ahfad al-sahaba grandsons of the companions of the

ahl al-dhimma people of the book, Christians and Jews
ahl al-hadith those who interpret the Prophetic tradition
ahl al-hall wa l-aqd decision makers (lit. ‘people who loose and
ahl al-qibla people who face Mecca for prayer
ahl al-sunna wa l-jamaa Sunnis (lit. ‘people of the tradition of the
Prophet and community’)
ahl al-tawhid people of monotheism
aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya Najdi religious scholars
amir ( pl. umara) ruler, prince
amr bi l-maruf wa l-nahy promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice
an al-munkar
aqida creed
asl principle
baghi (pl. bughat) usurper
bara dissociation from infidels
baya oath of allegiance
bida innovation, heresy
bilad al-haramayn the Land of the Two Holy Mosques
daif weak
daiyya (f. daiyyat; pl. duat) preacher
dawa religious call, mission
dawla state
dawlat al-tawhid monotheist polity
dhal one who has gone astray
dhalal debauchery, obscurity
duat al-islah reformers
fajir sinful, despotic
fard ayn an obligation incumbent upon every Muslim
Glossary ix

fard kifaya an obligation performed by a sufficient

number of Muslims
fasiq debauched
fatwa religious opinion issued by sharia expert
al-fia al-dhalla the group that has gone astray
fiqh Islamic jurisprudence
fitna strife, dissent
Hadith tradition, saying of the Prophet
hajr al-mubtadi ostracisation of innovators
hakim ruler
hakimiyya sovereignty
haraki politicised activist
haram forbidden
harb ala al-kuffar a battle against the infidels
hayat al-amr bil-ma ruf wa Committee for the Promotion of Virtue
l-nahy an al-munkar and Prohibition of Vice
hijra migration
hizb al-ghulat radicals
hizbiyya adherence to party politics
hizb al-wulat loyalists
ibada (pl. ibadat) Islamic rituals, worship
ijtihad applying reason to reach a religious ruling
ilm knowledge
ilmani (pl. ilmaniyyun) secular, secularist
imama state, leadership of the Muslim state
inkar al-munkar disavowing the abominable
iqamat al-hadd punishment
(pl. iqamat al-hudud)
islah reform
islahi (f. islahiyya; reformer
pl. islahiyyin, islahiyyat)
jahil one who is ignorant
jahiliyya the age of ignorance
jair despot
jamiat al-ulama association of ulama
jazirat al-arab/jazira the Arabian Peninsula
jihad exertion, struggle for the way of God
kafir (pl. kafirun) unbeliever, blasphemous
khawarij al-asr contemporary Kharijites
al-khitab al-dini religious discourse
khuruj bi l-sayf violent rebellion
x Glossary

khuruj siyasi political rebellion

khuruj ala wali al-amr/ rebellion against the ruler
khuruj ala al-hakim
kitab book
kufr unbelief, blasphemy
kufr bawwah/kufran obvious blasphemy
maasi minor sins
madhhab (pl. madhahib) school of jurisprudence
majlis meeting, council, study circle
majlis al-hiwar al-watani National Dialogue Forum
majlis al-shura consultative council
maruf that which is known in sharia
maslaha interest, public good
muahadin infidels enjoying a protected contractual
relationship with Muslims
muamalat jaiza permissible relations
mufti jurisconsult, highest religious authority
al-muhajirun the Muslims who migrated from Mecca
with the Prophet
mujahidun Jihadis
munafiq (pl. munafiqun) hypocrite
munkar evil
murabitun ala al-thugur ‘tied to the fortresses’
mushrik (pl. mushrikun) polytheists, blasphemers
muta temporary marriage
mutawa (pl. mutawaa) religious specialist
muthaqaf intellectual associated with acquiring
Western knowledge
muwahhidun monotheists
naqidh lil islam that which removes a Muslim from the
(pl. nawaqidh al-Islam) religious community and Islam
nidham legislation
nidham kufr a blasphemous regime
nifaq hypocrisy
nukhba elite
al-nukhba al-fikriyya intellectual elite
qadi judge
qaidun those left behind (lit. ‘sitting’)
qiyas deduction by analogy
raiyya subjects
al-sahabiyyat early female companions
Glossary xi

sahwa awakening
al-salaf al-salih pious ancestors
shabab youth
sharia Islamic legal codes and rules
sheikh tribal leader, religious scholar, notable
shirk blasphemy, heresy, polytheism
shubuhat (sg. shubuha) misguided opinions
shura consultation
sunna tradition of the Prophet (words and deeds)
sura Quranic verse
taghut (pl. tawaghit) despot, idol
tajdid al-khitab al-dini renewing religious discourse
takfir excommunication
takfir al-muayan the excommunication of an individual
takfir al-mujtama the excommunication of an entire society
takfir al-umum mass excommunication
tarajuat going back on previous opinions, repen-
tarajuat qasriyya forced repentance
tariqa (pl. turuq) Sufi way
tawba repentance
tawhid doctrine of the oneness of God
tawwali subservience through loyalty
tawwali al-kuffar subservience to infidels
tayar movement, trend
tayar al-haraki organised Islamist movement
tazkiyya an approval certificate
ulama (sg. alim) religious scholar, scientist
ulama al-sultan the religious establishment
umami global
umma the Muslim community
wala association, loyalty
al-wala wa l-bara association with Muslims and dissociation
from infidels
wali al-amr (pl. wulat ruler, the one who is in charge of affairs
wasat (n. wasatiyya) centrist
watan homeland
wataniyya citizenship
zaffat al-shahid celebration of a martyr
zakat Islamic tax
xii Glossary

Foreign words and phrases

ashash fiha al-shaytan the abode of Satan
ahd oath
ahfad al-sahaba grandsons of the companions of the
ahirat al-rum ‘Roman prostitutes’ (Pejoratively American
female soldiers on Saudi soil)
ahkam rules
ahl al-dhalal those who have gone astray
ahl al-dhimma people of the book, Christians and Jews
ahl al-fiqh people of jurisprudence
ahl al-hadith those who interpret the Prophetic tradition
ahl al-hall wa l-aqd decision makers (lit. ‘people who loose and
ahl al-qibla people who face Mecca for prayer
ahl-al-sulban Christians (lit. ‘people of the cross’)
ahl al-sunna wa l-jamaa Sunnis (lit. ‘people of the tradition of the
Prophet and community’)
ahl al-tawhid people of monotheism
ahzab siyasiyya political parties
aima religious scholars
aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya Najdi religious scholars
ajnabi foreigner
ajuz old
akhtar ghaltha more harsh
aman peace
amir ( pl umara) ruler, prince
amm public
amr bi l-maruf wa l-nahy promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice
an al-munkar
ansab genealogies
al-ansar supporters of the early Muslim immigrants
in Madina
aqida creed
aql reason
aqwal al-sahaba sayings of the Prophet’s companions
aris bridegroom
arus bride
asl principle
asr captivity
Glossary xiii

al-awliya pious men

ayam al-dhalal days of obscurity
azma crisis
bagdha hatred
baghi (pl. bughat) usurper
bara dissociation from infidels
baya oath of allegiance
bayn dhuhrani al-mushrikin living among polytheists
bida innovation, heresy
bilad al-haramayn the Land of the Two Holy Mosques
burqa veil that allows only the eyes to appear
daif weak
daiyya (f. daiyyat; pl. duat) preacher
dawa religious call, mission
dawla state
dawlat al-tawhid monotheist polity
dayuuth pimp
dhal one who has gone astray
dhalal debauchery, obscurity
dhikr devotional recitation
diya blood money
duat al-islah reformers
fajir sinful, despotic
faqih (pl. fuqaha) jurist, jurisprudent
fard ayn an obligation incumbent upon every
fard kifaya an obligation performed by a sufficient
number of Muslims
faridha duty, obligation
fasad corruption
fasiq debauched
fatwa (pl. fatawa) religious opinion issued by sharia expert
al-fia al-dhalla the group that has gone astray
fidaiyyin soldiers, comrades
fikr shadh perverse thought
fiqh Islamic jurisprudence
fiqh al-halal wa l-haram jurisprudence of the permissible and the
fiqh al-ibadat jurisprudence of worship
al-firqa al-dhalla those who have gone astray
fitna strife, dissent
fitra instinct, nature
xiv Glossary

gafwa sleep
ghadh al-basar lowering the gaze
ghazu raid
ghulat religious extremists
ghulu radicalism
ghutra white headcover
hadith tradition, saying of the Prophet
hafadhat Quran people who memorised the Quran
hajj pilgrimage
hajr al-mubtadi ostracisation of innovators
hakim ruler
hakimiyya sovereignty
hakim jair a despotic ruler
hakim kafir a blasphemous ruler
al-hakim al-munafiq the hypocrite ruler
haraki politicised activist
haram forbidden
harb ala al-kuffar a battle against the infidels
harbi aggressive
hasad envy
hayat al-amr bil-maruf wa Committee for the Promotion of Virtue
l-nahy an al-munkar and Prohibition of Vice
hayba aura, authority
hijab veil
hijra migration
himla salibiyya a crusade
hisba accountability
hizb al-ghulat radicals
hizbiyya adherence to party politics
hizb al-wulat loyalists
hudud punishments
hukam al-riyadh (pejoratively) the rulers of Riyadh
al-hukm al-jabri coercive rule
hurra free woman
ibada (pl. ibadat) Islamic rituals, worship
iftar breakfast
ijma consensus
ijtihad applying reason to reach a religious ruling
ilm knowledge
ilmani (pl. ilmaniyyun) secular, secularist
iltizam commitment to the tradition
imama state, leadership of the Muslim state
Glossary xv

inhizamiyyat al-umma the defeatist attitude of the umma

inkar al-munkar disavowing the abominable
iqamat al-hadd punishment
(pl. iqamat al-hudud)
islah reform
islahi (f. islahiyya; reformer
pl. islahiyyin, islahiyyat)
islah al-mawruth al-ijtimai reform of social heritage
istiana assistance
istila seizure of power by force
istirahat al-muharib a temporary period of rest
itisal communication
jadwal zamani timetable
jahil one who is ignorant
jahiliyya the age of ignorance
jair despot
jaiz permissible
jamiat al-ulama association of ulama
jariyya a female slave
jazirat al-arab, jazirat the Arabian Peninsula
jihad exertion, struggle for the way of God
jihad amali practical jihad
jihad dafi defensive jihad
jihad hadari civilisational struggle
jihad madani a civil jihad
jihad nadhari theoretical jihad
jihad qitali military struggle
jihad talab offensive jihad
junun al-adhama grandiose madness
kaffara compensation in money or deeds
kafir (pl. kafirun) unbeliever, blasphemous
kahanut clergy
al-kalima ‘the word’
khal forcing a ruler to leave office
al-khassa an elite minority
khawarij al-asr contemporary Kharijites
al-khitab al-dini religious discourse
khubth filth
khuruj aqaidi religious rebellion
khuruj bi al-sayf violent rebellion
khuruj siyasi political rebellion
xvi Glossary

khuruj ala wali al-amr/ rebellion against the ruler

khuruj ala al-hakim
kitab book
al-kitab wa l-sunna the book and the deeds of the Prophet
kitman concealing God’s message as revealed in
the Quran
kufr unbelief, blasphemy
kufr bawwah/kufran bawahan obvious blasphemy
maahid institutes
maasi minor sins
madhhab (pl. madhahib) school of jurisprudence
madrasa school
mafahim understanding
mahram male guardian
maharim forbidden women (close relatives such as
mother, sister etc.)
majlis meeting, council, study circle
majlis al-hiwar al-watani National Dialogue Forum
majlis nuwab a parliament
majlis al-shura consultative council
maqasid al-sharia the objectives of sharia
maruf that which is known in sharia
mashaykh al-haydh ‘the sheikhs of menstruation’
masiyya sins
maslaha interest, public good
mawada affection
al-mawruth al-ijtimai inherited social tradition
millat al-kufr the religion of blasphemy
mithaq treaty
muahadin infidels enjoying a protected contractual
relationship with Muslims
muamalat jaiza permissible relationship
al-muawal interpreted religious discourse
mubdiun innovators
mubiqat grave sins
mufakir Islami a Muslim thinker
mufaraqat al-hayat leaving life
mufti jurisconsult, highest religious authority
al-muhajirun the Muslims who migrated from Mecca
with the Prophet
mujahidun Jihadis
mujtahid scholar entitled to give individual opinions
Glossary xvii

mukataba writing (to the ruler)

mukhalafat errors
mulhid atheist
mulk kingship
munafiq (pl. munafiqun) hypocrite
munathirun armchair theoreticians
al-munazal revealed religious discourse
munkar evil
muqalid follower of a previous generation of
murabitun ala al-thugur ‘tied to the battlefield’
murtadd apostate
mushawithun charlatans
mushrik (pl. mushrikun) polytheists, blasphemers
al-mustabid al-adil a just despot
mustahab desirable
mustawtanat (colonial) settlements
muta temporary marriage
mutadayin religious, observant
mutawa (pl. mutawaa) religious specialist
mutawwain low-ranking Wahhabi preachers
muthaqaf intellectual associated with acquiring
Western knowledge
muwahhidun monotheists
muwalat an affectionate relationship with infidels
najs impure, polluting
naqidh lil islam that which removes a Muslim from the
(pl. nawaqidh al-Islam) religious community and Islam
naql tradition
nashid songs
nasiha advice
nidham new legislation
nidham kufr a blasphemous regime
nifaq hypocrisy
nifaq amali practical hypocrisy
nifaq aqadi ‘creed’ hypocrisy
nima grace
nukhba elite
al-nukhba al-fikriyya intellectual elite
qadi judge
qahr coercion
qaidun those left behind (lit. ‘sitting’)
xviii Glossary

qawi strong
qiyas deduction by analogy
quburi grave-worshipper
al-quwa al-mutadharira those who are hurt by reform
rafidha rejectionists
rahat crowd
raiyya subjects
rijal din clergy
sabb insult
sad al-tharai prohibition of acts that might violate the
law (lit. ‘blocking the means’)
al-sahabiyyat early Muslim women
sahwa awakening
al-salaf al-salih pious ancestors
al-shab the people
shabab youth
shabab al-sahwa the youth of the awakening
al-shahada the Muslim declaration of faith
al-shan al-am public affairs
sharia Islamic legal codes and rules
sheikh tribal leader, religious scholar, notable
shirk blasphemy, heresy, polytheism
shirk asghar ‘the minor association’, a lesser blasphemy
shirk akbar ‘the great association’, a major blasphemy
shirk jadid new blasphemy
shubuhat (sg. shubuha) misguided opinions
shura consultation
sunna tradition of the Prophet (words and deeds)
sura Quranic verse
taasub fanaticism
taghut (pl. tawaghit) despot, idol
tahkim al-shar application of sharia
taiyyin the appointment of a successor by the
current ruler (hereditary rule)
tajdid al-khitab al-dini renewing religious discourse
takfir excommunication
takfir al-muayan the excommunication of an individual
takfir al-mujtama the excommunication of an entire society
takfir al-umum mass excommunication
tamasuh touching
tanbih to alert
taraf fikri intellectual luxury
Glossary xix

tarajuat going back on previous opinions, repentance

tarajuat qasriyya forced repentance
tarasubat wa tarakumat social norms
tari temporary, accidental
tariqa (pl. turuq) Sufi way
tarikh history
tashabuh bi l-kuffar imitating infidels
al-tatarus bi l-nisa using women as human shields in time of
tatbiqat application
tatil faridhat al-jihad suspending the obligation of jihad
tawba repentance
tawhid doctrine of the oneness of God
tawil interpretation
tawwali subservience through loyalty
tawwali al-kuffar subservience to infidels
tayar movement
tayar al-haraki organised Islamist movement
tazkiyat al-hakim praising the ruler
tazkiyya an approval certificate
thaqafat al-jihad a culture of jihad
thawb male robes
thulathi al-takfir trinity of excommunication
tughyan oppression, despotism
turath heritage
ulama (sing. alim) religious scholar, scientist
ulama al-sultan the religious establishment
uli al-amr those charged with authority
ulum shariyya religious knowledge
umala traitors
umami global
umma Muslim community
al-umma al-muntasira ‘the victorious party’
umra minor pilgrimage
al-unsor al-daif the weak element
unsoriyya racist
uqal head-rope
uyub faults, shameful behaviour
wala association, loyalty
al-wala wa l-bara association with Muslims and dissociation
from infidels
xx Glossary

wali al-amr (pl. wulat al-amr) ruler, the one who is in charge of affairs
warathat al-anbiya heirs of the Prophets
wasat (n. wasatiyya) centrist
watan homeland
wataniyya citizenship
wilaya ama high leadership
yahsum al-khiyar a final resolution
zaffa wedding celebration
zaffat al-shahid celebration of a martyr
zakat Islamic tax
zawaj al-misyar ‘visiting marriage’, a marriage without
formal obligations
ziyara visit


Tabuq NAJD


Tayma’ Ha’il IA
Buraydah Dammam
’Unayzah Qasi m Dahran GUL
Madina Dir’iyyah HASA
Yanbu’ Riyadh



Mecca Khurma
Jeddah OF


Sabya Najran



0 200 400 600 km

Map 1. Saudi Arabia, main regions and cities.

Source: F. Clements, Saudi Arabia,World Bibliographical Series (Oxford:

Clio Press, 1979; reprinted 1988). Courtesy of Clio Press.

Introduction: debating religion and politics in
the twenty-first century

This book is an ethnography of consent and contestation. It is about con-

temporary Saudis who debate politics and religion. Outsiders often refer
to Saudis as Wahhabis or Salafis, but in the twenty-first century Saudis
themselves no longer agree on the meaning of these terms and many do
not accept their validity. Most Saudis believe that there is no separation
between religion and politics at the level of public discourse. Yet the
majority agree that in practice there is a separation between the professed
religious rhetoric of the state, on the one hand, and the reality of political
practice, on the other. Calls for the reformation of state and society always
invoke religion and politics together in a single framework. This book
focuses on what I call Wahhabi religio-political discourse, the sum total of
interpretations that draw on religion to comprehend, justify, sanction or
challenge politics. This discourse is rooted in the Wahhabi tradition and
the intellectual heritage of its ulama. Wahhabi interpretations are the
dominant intellectual reference point.
Some scholars claim that authoritarianism generates conceptual
impotence. Others argue that authoritarian rule produces development
outcomes that are either very good or very bad. In the Saudi case, author-
itarianism has generated consenting subjects, incomplete projects,
diverted journeys, betrayal and opportunism – but not intellectual impo-
tence. Saudi authoritarianism has led to consent and confrontation at the
same time. The regime, together with a mushrooming religious bureau-
cracy, created a world that insisted on complete submission to political
authority while preaching total submission to God. Rather than being
paralysed by impotence, the Saudis have produced a complex intellec-
tual tapestry, woven by debating subjects, some of whom consent while
others confront. Against the background of authoritarianism, vibrant
diversity, pluralism and debate has arisen. There is also blind and indis-
criminate violence. Violence is committed by a state that demands
complete surrender to its will and by a minority that challenges this sur-
render. Both the state and its subjects are engaged in perpetual cycle of
real and symbolic violence. The majority of ordinary Saudis are either

2 Contesting the Saudi State

spectators or active participants in volatile debates about religion, poli-

tics and society.

Wahhabiyya and Salafiyya

Wahhabiyya is a label imposed on people who would rather call them-
selves simply Muslims. In the past, so-called Wahhabis preferred to
be known as al-muwahhidun or ahl al-tawhid (monotheists), but today
this appellation is rather archaic. Many al-muwahhidun would probably
prefer to be known as Salafiyyun. In this book, I will retain the name
Wahhabiyya to refer to the Saudi variant of Salafiyya, thus applying the
Arab saying that ‘a known error is better than an unknown correctness’
(khata shai ahsan min sawab majhul). My justification for retaining the
name Wahhabiyya is based on the assumption that there is a body of reli-
gious knowledge that has common intellectual ancestry, without assum-
ing that this factor gives the discourse rigid unity or coherence.
In this study, Wahhabiyya is considered a fragmented but hegemonic
religious discourse. It is distinguished from other Sunni Muslim religious
discourses by its own specific interpretations and interpreters.
Wahhabiyya is simply a religious worldview that can promote both
consent and contestation, depending on the context in which its teach-
ings and texts are interpreted. This book tries to bridge the gap between
text and context. Politically, Wahhabiyya can be both quietist and revolu-
tionary, as will be shown here.
In its early eighteenth-century phase, Wahhabiyya1 proved to be con-
ducive to political centralisation, and did contribute to the formation of
the first Saudi–Wahhabi emirate (1744–1818).2 The historical alliance
between sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Muhammad ibn
Saud led to the formation of the first Saudi state. This state expanded in
Arabia under the pretext of purifying faith from innovation and applying
Islamic law. Wahhabi enthusiasm and military expansion led to the
Egyptian invasion of Arabia, under the patronage of the Ottoman sultan,
early in the nineteenth century. While the political leadership, mainly the
Al-Saud, were temporarily removed from the Arabian scene, the Wahhabi
movement remained alive, although it avoided direct confrontation with
the Ottoman empire after the Egyptian invasion. However, it seems that
Wahhabis learned a serious lesson from the Egyptian annihilation of their
power base in Deriyyah in 1818: they learned to be pragmatic. Wahhabis
survived afterwards because they supported political power, which meant
moderating religious zeal. Since then, Wahhabi scholars have accepted a
subservient position. They lived in the shadow of the sultan. While this
history does not concern us here, it is important to remember its contours
Introduction: debating religion 3

because it continues to affect the way religion and politics coexist in Saudi
Arabia in the twenty-first century.
Salafiyya is a methodology that invokes the literal interpretation of reli-
gious texts, and the return to the early tradition of the pious companions
of the Prophet. It must be said that there is no consensus among Sunni
Muslims on who the pious ancestors (al-salaf al-salih) were, although the
majority of scholars would probably identify them as including the first
generation that accompanied the Prophet. Other Sunnis might stretch
the salaf to include three generations after the Prophet. For some contem-
porary advocates, Salafiyya dates back to the works of medieval scholars
who called for literal interpretations of religious texts. Some contempo-
rary Islamists argue that Salafiyya is rooted in medieval theology, espe-
cially the early calls to return to the Quran and Sunna (tradition of the
Prophet), associated with Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780–855), Ibn Taymiyya
(1268–1328) and their followers.
As a descriptor, Salafiyya is a modern term, dating back to the late
nineteenth-century Islamic reformist movements, especially the one asso-
ciated with Azharite Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) and the activist
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97). The Saudi Wahhabi Salafiyya does
not have much in common with this modernist Salafiyya. Muhammad
Abduh preached a reformist–modernist Salafiyya while Wahhabiyya was a
revivalist Salafi movement, concerned mainly with the purification of reli-
gious practice and the application of sharia. Modernist Salafiyya grew as a
result of the encounter with the West and as the result of a quest for
advancement. The Wahhabi Salafiyya emerged in central Arabia prior to
this encounter, although Western powers were beginning to encircle
Arabia in the eighteenth century. Its main objective was the purification of
faith and worship. The eighteenth-century Wahhabi Salafi tradition had a
more limited objective than that propagated by modernist Salafis. When
contemporary Wahhabis invoke al-salaf al-salih, one is led to believe that
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab could be counted among them,
but not many Sunni Muslims would agree.
In the twenty-first century, those who call themselves Salafis are
engaged in fierce debate among themselves to define who is a Salafi and
who is not. As there is no agreement over the meaning of Salafiyya or
who is a Salafi, I am inclined to consider it an elastic identity that is
invoked to convey a meaning or several meanings. In the West today,
Salafiyya represents extreme radicalism, intolerance, backwardness and
violence. In Western media and even scholarly work, Salafis are portrayed
as ‘fundamentalists’ and potential terrorists. Yet for others outside the
West, Salafiyya represents authentic, unmediated Islam. For those
people, Salafiyya means worshipping God according to the Quran and the
4 Contesting the Saudi State

tradition of the Prophet, transmitted by those who were his contempo-

raries, without the mediation of later generations.3 According to advocates
of Salafiyya, the movement empowers the ordinary worshipper, who is no
longer dependent on a wide circle of interpreters. A Salafi can be actively
involved in interpretation himself, provided that he has a basic standard of
knowledge and literacy. Modernity encouraged and perpetuated Sala-
fiyya. Literacy and mass communication favour its survival in contempo-
rary Muslim society. Salafiyya and modernity are inseparable.
Eighteenth-century Wahhabiyya was the main impetus behind political
centralisation in Arabia. Without Wahhabiyya, there would have been no
Al-Saud and no Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, in the twenty-first
century, Wahhabiyya continues to support the power it created and
defended. In its official version, Wahhabiyya is the discourse of power
legitimisation. From its early eighteenth-century history, it developed
religious interpretations to legitimise political power which led to deep
grounding in authoritarianism, and even despotism, within Islam.
Wahhabiyya sanctioned a regime that claims to rule according to Islam
but in reality in the twenty first century retains only Islamic rhetoric and
external trappings. The latter include public beheadings, excluding
women from the public sphere, closing shops for prayers as well as other
orchestrated and dramatised displays of religiosity. The exclusion and
confinement of women have become a symbol for the piety of the Saudi
state. Islam is consequently reduced to this dimension. In reality the
regime operates according to personalised political gains rather than reli-
gious dogma or national interest.
Under state control Wahhabi interpreters – for example, ulama, intellec-
tuals and activists – gradually developed into a class of noblesse détat.
Although Saudi ulama appear to enjoy more power, financial resources,
prestige and privileges than their counterparts elsewhere in the Muslim
world, it must be emphasised that the modern state has pushed them
towards a ceremonial role. This does not rule out influence and control:
unlike their counterparts in other Arab countries, Wahhabi scholars have
considerable control over the social sphere. However, like other official reli-
gious scholars in the Arab world, Wahhabis lost control over policy and
politics to royalty and state bureaucrats and technocrats – the political
sphere is beyond Wahhabi control. In order to survive in a changing world,
interpreters of Wahhabiyya accepted this reality, which had serious conse-
quences. The Saudi state is not a Wahhabi state, as claimed by amateur
observers. State policy is determined by a coterie of individuals who do not
have Wahhabiyya as their reference paradigm, but who use it as a convenient
device to cloak their personal political activities. Outside observers often do
not distinguish between the Wahhabised social sphere and Saudi politics.
Introduction: debating religion 5

Like the political regime it supports and sanctions, Wahhabiyya is

authoritarian. It does not tolerate difference in opinion, and fears any the-
ological debate which may result in questioning either its own monopoly
over religious interpretation or the legitimacy of the political power it sup-
ports. It abides by the maxim of hajr al-mubtadi, an old principle
grounded in religious texts that calls for the ostracisation of innovators,
defined as those who do not share Wahhabi teachings. Wahhabis ostracise
the ‘other’, especially the Muslim other. They shun their adversaries for
fear of contaminating or shaking their own beliefs. Yet Wahhabiyya is con-
stantly engaged in vigorous preaching (dawa), both inside and outside
Saudi Arabia. This, however, is different from debate with the other, who
does not share Wahhabi interpretations. Official Wahhabiyya is religiously
dogmatic, socially conservative and politically acquiescent.
Saudi Arabia may have a single dominant official religious discourse,
commonly referred to as Salafi Wahhabiyya, but in the shadow of this dis-
course there are people who are engaged in challenging, redefining,
destroying and reinterpreting it. Today in Saudi Arabia, as elsewhere in
the world, there is no monopoly over religious knowledge, thanks to new
communication technology, literacy and printing. A religious tradition
such as the Wahhabiyya was based on the interpretation of a closed circle
of scholars, who trace their intellectual genealogy to the interpretations of
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Today, Wahhabiyya itself is not pro-
duced and reproduced only by this closed circle; it is both asserted and
challenged by people who are brought up on its teachings but who may
belong to regions in Saudi Arabia outside that of its earlier advocates.
Ulama, intellectuals and laymen are engaged in a fierce debate that not
only touches upon religious matters but spills over to politics, history and
society. Yet in the twenty-first century Wahhabiyya remains the main
intellectual background against which both consent and confrontation
are understood, assessed and measured.
Given the historical marginality of central Arabia where Wahhabiyya
originated in the eighteenth century, the movement would most probably
have shared the fate of other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revival-
ist movements in the Muslim world:4 it would have gone down in histori-
cal imagination as a nuisance to the Ottoman Empire in one of its most
far-flung, insignificant territories. However, the Saudi regime hoped that
the combination of dawa (call) and dawla (state), together with a chang-
ing regional Arab power context would shift the centre from Egypt to
Saudi Arabia in the second half of the twentieth century.5 This granted
Wahhabiyya a hegemonic status unmatched by its early humble
eighteenth-century intellectual credentials. The small size of the Saudi
population and its limited development at the time militated against
6 Contesting the Saudi State

Saudi Arabia replacing Egypt but it became more influential. Since the
1970s, oil wealth has allowed this religious tradition greater visibility – not
only in Saudi Arabia, but also abroad.
Wahhabiyya’s historical alliance with an absolutist monarchical state
under the leadership of the dynastic Al-Saud family, which became
extremely rich as a result of oil revenues, allowed the movement greater
visibility while at the same time bestowing legitimacy on the political
leadership. Oil wealth brought to Saudi Arabia mass education, printing,
communication technology, and easy travel and movement: all facilitated
the consolidation of Wahhabiyya. Hence Najdi Wahhabiyya became pre-
maturely transnationalised under the patronage of the Saudi regime. The
religious treatises and epistles of its founding fathers and its latter advo-
cates travelled to all continents. Oil wealth allowed the Saudi regime to be
recognised as a major international player, but Wahhabiyya granted it
Islamic legitimacy among Muslims, not only in Saudi Arabia, but also
worldwide. This legitimacy derived from the claim that the Saudi state is
a monotheist state that upholds sharia and Islamic values, in addition to
being the protector of the most sacred Islamic shrines, although it only
assumed that role in the late 1920s.
Wahhabi discourse generated consent among people who were not nat-
urally predisposed to submit to the political authority that carried its
banner. Wahhabiyya not only facilitated conquest but ensured consent
after battle. From the very beginning, the Saudi–Wahhabi project was
centred on accusing the people of Arabia of being polytheists whose reli-
gion needed to be purified and corrected. This required them to submit
to the political will of the Al-Saud. Rebelling against the Saudis was no
longer a political act but a sin, a violation of the principles of monotheism.
Therefore, obeying rulers became a religious duty, part and parcel of wor-
shipping God. This consenting Wahhabi religio-political discourse is
today contested from within.
It is ironic that the forces that consolidated the consenting Wahhabi
religio-political discourse are also responsible for its contestation. Under
state control, Wahhabi discourse mutated and fragmented in an attempt to
escape the straitjacket imposed by political power. Furthermore, commu-
nication technology, mass education and printing, while allowing the
consolidation of this discourse, also led to confrontation with Wahhabiyya.
The oil wealth that consolidated Wahhabiyya generated challenging voices.
Schisms within Wahhabiyya characterise its religio-political discourse at
the turn of the twenty-first century. While the world fears Wahhabiyya,
Wahhabiyya itself fears the schisms within its own rank and file. While the
Western world condemns Wahhabiyya, Wahhabiyya itself condemns its
own people, especially when those people challenge it from within.
Introduction: debating religion 7

Wahhabiyya in the eyes of others

As a religious movement that was tied up with a political project,
Wahhabiyyya was always a contested tradition within the Sunni world of
Islam. Ulama in the immediate vicinity of the centre of Wahhabiyya,6
together with those in Mecca and Madina,7 devoted considerable energy
to refuting its claims and interpretations. Some local Najdi ulama
referred to it as ‘the fifth madhhab’, which Sunni ulama in Istanbul,
Mecca, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad8 denounced in long treatises that
circulated across the Ottoman Empire.9 Wahhabiyya regarded Islam in
these lands as corrupted, and even as closer to polytheism than to
monotheism. It was only natural for those Muslims to defend their reli-
gious practices and tradition.
Non-Sunni Muslims – for example, Shiis, Ismailis, Zaydis and others –
immediately felt the greater danger of Wahhabi teaching, which
denounced their traditions as contemporary forms of innovation, and
even blasphemy.10 Non-Sunni ulama rejected what they regarded as
bigoted and uncompromising radicalism associated with the call of
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Intellectual battles between Wahhabi
advocates and their critics have continued throughout the last 250 years.
While on the surface these conflicts were grounded in religion, they nev-
ertheless reflected political concerns. To understand the various
responses to Wahhabiyya, one must situate the polemic in the context of
competition and rivalry between various power centres and regional
groups in the pre-modern world of Islam – mainly Cairo, Damascus,
Baghdad and Arabia. The debates between Wahhabis and other Muslims
continue until the present day.
For many decades, Western academic wisdom on Wahhabiyya
accepted the old Philby–Rentz11 thesis, which regarded the movement as
an authentic revivalist Unitarian Muslim tradition. It was agreed that
Wahhabiyya can be rather excessive and rigorous but in no way consti-
tutes a threat to the West, as long as its advocates remained under the
control of the Al-Saud. Wahhabiyya even proved to be capable of render-
ing great services to the Western project of defeating communism in the
context of the Cold War and the liberation of Afghanistan. For decades,
Western governments whose nationals worked and benefited from Saudi
oil had faith in the ability of the Al-Saud to keep the so-called Wahhabis
under control by ensuring minimal contact between the expatriate
Western minority and Saudi society. For this purpose, the regime con-
fined the Western expatriate elite to luxurious residential compounds
while Saudis built high walls around their abodes to ‘protect’ themselves
against the influx of ‘infidels’. They also clung to a mixture of religious
8 Contesting the Saudi State

and social tradition that favoured not only exclusion of the other but also
its demonisation. This was neither a sign of an inherent xenophobia nor a
national characteristic. It was a defensive reaction to the sudden inunda-
tion of ‘aliens’ with whom there were no common cultural or linguistic
grounds. This was clearly reflected in the residential segregation that
most Saudi cities experienced since the 1970s.
In the twentieth century, the expatriate Western residential compounds
in major Saudi cities constituted a porous boundary, a physical and moral
ghetto that a small minority of Saudi locals admired as a refuge from their
own restrictive traditions. Such Saudis considered these compounds an
escape from rigid morality, excessive prohibitions and surveillance. Other
Saudis condemned this segregated physical space, the ghetto that came to
symbolise foreign domination, moral bankruptcy, debauchery, corruption
and sin. Most, however, tried to ignore the existence of what they regarded
a necessary physical evil in the midst of a vast land of piety. Western resi-
dential compounds became oases in a Muslim conservative desert. As such
they were and still are contested and dangerous ‘liminal’ spaces. Recently a
very small minority endeavoured to eliminate these compounds physically,
depicting them as colonial settlements (mustawtanat). It is not without sig-
nificance that the residential expatriate compound was the prime target
during the wave of violence that swept Saudi Arabia in 2003.
Common Western wisdom regarded Wahhabis as enigmatic puritans
who were best left to their own devices. In the past many Western scholars
celebrated the stabilising effect of Wahhabiyya at the level of politics but
resented its excessive social conservatism. They would have preferred a
socially lax Wahhabiyya that allowed them greater access to Saudi society
or more freedoms in this society but guaranteed the stability of the politi-
cal regime that is seen by many as a ‘friend’. But social conservatism and
political acquiescence are inseparable in a context such as Saudi Arabia.
Nothing annoyed Westerners in Saudi Arabia more than the social
aspects of Wahhabiyya – for example, its uncompromising views on sex
segregation, the ban on alcohol and women driving, public beheadings
and other ‘idiosyncrasies’, which they did not encounter elsewhere in the
Muslim world. For years the West was happy to live with this social con-
servatism. Westerners recognised that there is often a little price to be
paid for untaxed income, lavish financial contracts, weapon purchases,
commissions, investment and an ongoing flow of oil at reasonable prices.
For the Western world, Saudi Arabia has a double significance, as it
remains both a prime producer of important energy and an avid con-
sumer of Western goods.
After the events of 11 September 2001, Wahhabiyya and terrorism
became connected in the minds of many Westerners. The attack on New
Introduction: debating religion 9

York and the Pentagon, in which fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were
Saudis, changed many things, one of which was Western perceptions of
Wahhabiyya. Its Western critics suddenly became louder. The movement
and its supporters were accused of generating terrorism, intolerance and
hatred towards the West. Wahhabi discourse was suddenly held responsi-
ble for delaying the emancipation of Saudi women, abuse of human rights
and discrimination against religious Muslim minorities – for example,
Saudi Shiis, Ismailis and Sufis, long-forgotten groups whose plight
nobody had until then bothered to highlight in the West. Moreover, the
movement was accused of providing the religious justification for
denouncing Jews and Christians and promoting a culture of confronta-
tion with the West in general. Suddenly Wahhabiyya moved from being
the ‘puritanical’ Unitarian movement that had created a glorious empire,
according to ARAMCO American historian George Rentz, to being the
discourse of hatred, intolerance and terrorism.
The events of 11 September brought about new dimensions in the
controversy surrounding Wahhabiyya. The West, through its academic
community, media specialists and think-tank consultants, became an
active agent in the debate about Wahhabiyya. While not all this debate is
based on scholarly assessment aimed at understanding contemporary
Saudi–Wahhabi religious discourse,12 serious effort was put into identify-
ing the origins of terrorism, with the result that the Wahhabis were directly
accused of promoting religiously motivated and sanctioned violence.13
Despite official Saudi attempts to dissociate their state religion from the
atrocities of 11 September, such accusations against Wahhabiyya contin-
ued to flourish. These were given substance and credibility by Saudi polit-
ical activists, both inside the country and abroad, some of whom had a
vested interest in demonising Wahhabiyya.14 The war on Iraq in 2003
contributed to the further demonisation of Wahhabiyya, especially after it
transpired that Saudis were active participants in the jihad against
Americans as part of the Iraqi resistance. Almost all observers assumed
that those Saudis were acting in the name of Wahhabiyya, after being
indoctrinated in its teachings in Saudi schools. In those commentators’
minds, by the age of eighteen Saudi men are fully prepared to launch jihad
against ‘infidels’. Saudi males suddenly became suspect potential terror-
ists; there were calls for their eyes to be screened and kept on record, along
with their fingerprints. If not Wahhabis, they are assumed to be Salafi
fanatics. In the minds of many outsiders, Wahhabiyya and Salafiyya are
synonymous, both standing for fanaticism and violence.
In response to the events of 11 September, the Saudi regime quickly
encouraged academic studies in English, in addition to religious publica-
tions,15 to restore its own image and that of the Wahhabiyya in the
10 Contesting the Saudi State

Western English-speaking world.16 Conferences sponsored by Saudi

embassies were held in Washington, London and Paris to improve the
standing of Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabi tradition. The country opened
the once almost impenetrable borders for Western researchers, graduate
students, journalists and other visitors to scrutinise local society. Books in
English appeared, presenting Wahhabiyya as a peaceful tradition that
encourages dialogue with the other and respects women’s rights and
minorities. For example, a defense of Wahhabiyya, under the patronage of
Saudi princes and research centres was written by Natana DeLong-Bas.
In this book, the author contests negative images of Wahhabiyya and
absolves it from any responsibility for twenty-first-century terrorism.17
The Saudi regime insisted that it was a victim rather than an incubator of
terrorism. Sponsored publications absolved Wahhabiyya from any
responsibility for the atrocities of 11 September. These propaganda pub-
lications lay the blame on modern imported Islamist movements and ide-
ologies such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and militant Jihadi
movements.18 While evaluating Western accusations is beyond the scope
of this study, it is important to emphasise that, despite Saudi efforts,
Wahhabiyya became in Western popular imagination a model of the
uncompromising and radical religious interpretation that inspires vio-
lence. Many Muslims, including Saudis, share this view.
These negative accounts ignore a long history of Western–Saudi
harmony. Scholars in the West overlook the fact that the Al-Saud were
more than happy to seek military and financial help from so-called infidels
as early as 1915, and even to pursue a policy that was subservient to imper-
ial powers. Saudi–British relations prove that the Saudi leadership was
capable of making compromises, or even turning a blind eye to intimate
relations with a foreign power, defined in Wahhabi world view as a kafir
state. Most Western accounts of official Wahhabiyya do not make distinc-
tions between the movement’s religious intolerance of other Muslims, on
the one hand, and its acceptance of Western influence in Saudi Arabia, on
the other. They fail to highlight that political acquiescence and sub-
servience to political authority is an important characteristic of the domes-
ticated tradition that grew in the shadow of Saudi kings.19 When Ibn Saud
clashed with the Ikhwan fighters in the 1920s, it was assumed that this
resulted from their objections to his relations with ‘infidel’ Britain. In fact
the conflict with the Ikhwan was more to do with the marginalisation of
the tribal population and the failure of its leadership to secure a place in the
new Saudi polity, after its military contribution to the Al-Saud project. The
Ikhwan rebellion was not simply a rebellion against Ibn Saud’s sub-
servience to Britain. It was a last cry against Ibn Saud’s Machiavillian
policy that required eliminating those who brought him to power.
Introduction: debating religion 11

Wahhabi social conservatism is often held responsible for terrorism

directed against the West. Wahhabiyya can be an idiom of resistance to
foreign domination, but it can equally be a discourse that enforces obedi-
ence to political authority. Official Wahhabiyya has no problem with
princes making alliances with ‘infidels’ – Christians, and even Jews. After
all, the Prophet himself sought refuge for his followers with Christians in
Abyssinia and Jews in Madina. Some Wahhabis believe that their contem-
porary Imam, the Saudi king, follows these glorious political examples of
ancient political wisdom. After all, the Imam knows best what is in the
people’s interest and the public good. Wahhabis would rather not inter-
fere as long as they continue to control the domestic social sphere, which
must be kept uncontaminated by signs of blasphemy – for example, wor-
shipping trees, visiting tombs and seeking knowledge from charlatans and
sorcerers posing as holy men. Purifying Arabia from these signs of shirk
(blasphemy) is more important than formulating a Muslim foreign
policy. They are happy to leave the latter to the wali al-amr, the Custodian
of the Two Holy Mosques.
Western accusations of Wahhabiyya remain controversial, as they fall
short of explaining political development inside Saudi Arabia – let alone
world terrorism, international relations and current affairs. The accusers
assume that there is one Wahhabiyya, that can potentially breed violence
and confrontation. The reality is that there are several brands within this
Salafi movement.20 At one end there is the extremely subservient and
pragmatic tradition associated with official Wahhabiyya, described in the
first chapter, while at the opposite end there is the revolutionary brand
that is often associated with Jihadi groups. All groups are socially conser-
vative, although the pragmatism of official Wahhabiya may lead to some
flexibility even in social matters: it would not be a surprise if Wahhabi
scholars issued a fatwa in support of women driving in the near future.
The main difference between various Wahhabi–Salafi trends relates to
their political discourse and strategies regarding resistance, relations with
the ruler and non-Muslims and political activism.
Reducing world terrorism to the influence of Wahhabiyya is a mis-
guided approach that attributes more influence, power and organisational
potential to this movement than it is actually capable of generating.
Moreover, such an oversimplification ignores aggressive American inter-
vention in the Muslim world and the US misguided foreign policy. It also
overlooks the fact that for decades the USA was the strongest supporter of
many regimes seen by their subjects as oppressive and authoritarian. It
goes without saying that fighting terrorism requires more than changing
the Saudi religious education curriculum. Western accusations are
founded on the assumption that there is a single Wahhabiyya–Salafiyya
12 Contesting the Saudi State

that embodies a radical call for violence against the West; in fact, histori-
cally most Wahhabi violence was directed against other Muslims.
It is doubtful whether the masterminds of the attacks on New York,
mainly Osama bin Laden and his aides, can be easily described as
Wahhabis. While they would most probably accept being called Salafis,
they may well feel that the label Wahhabi does not reflect the global
message of al-Qaida. It is certain that Bin Laden does not subscribe to
the official Wahhabi religio-political discourse described in the first
chapter of this book. This discourse is but one strand within the spectrum
of interpretations that constitute Salafiyya. Bin Laden may be selective
when it comes to formulating a revolutionary worldview based on partic-
ular interpretations of religious texts. He seems to adopt a post-modern
mix-and-match approach to theorise and justify violence against the West
and its ‘local Muslim agents’. This approach certainly incorporates the
idiom of leftist revolutionary and nationalist struggles that swept the
world in the twentieth century.21 If one is to edit his speeches and cut out
religious references, his rhetoric cannot be very clearly distinguished from
early revolutionary slogans that drew on Western rather than Islamic
intellectual traditions. Bin Laden does not call upon all workers of the
world to break their chains: he calls upon all Muslims to do so. He does
not reject Western capitalism: he calls for an alternative Islamic capitalist
mode of production. But there is a strong mystical Islamic dimension to
Bin Laden that is not well captured by statements likening him to early
leftist, nationalist revolutionaries or contemporary anti-globalisation and
environmentalist militants.22
This book is not about Wahhabiyya as a theological body of religious
knowledge produced over 250 years, nor is it an exposition of the main
teachings of the movement. I am not concerned here with Wahhabi
debate on God and his names and adjectives, or with definitions of poly-
theism, or salvation by faith and deeds. I do not deal with Wahhabi
debates on naql (tradition) and aql (reason). I overlook Wahhabi theolog-
ical positions on Sufism and other Sunni schools and sects in Islam. I only
consider these aspects as long as they are relevant to the political debate
that is continuing in Saudi Arabia.

The focus of the book

This book examines Wahhabiyya in the twenty-first century as a con-
tested intellectual, religious and political field, which is currently appro-
priated by several actors. My aim is to capture the ongoing public debate.
Like other Muslims, Saudis are engaged in debating religion, which
touches upon politics. According to Dale Eickelman, ‘the combination of
Introduction: debating religion 13

mass education and mass communications is transforming this world . . .

the faithful . . . are examining and debating the fundamentals of Muslim
belief and practice in ways that their less self-conscious predecessors
would never have imagined’.23 However, Muslims have always debated
religion and politics. What is new is the speed of the debate and the circles
in which it revolves. Its contemporary manifestations are characterised by
the participation of a wider circle. Today, regardless of their level of edu-
cation, all Muslims – including Saudis – can engage in this debate, both as
recipients and participants. They do not even need to be literate: religious
cassettes and television screens bridge the gap between the literates and
the illiterates of the Muslim world. New media, especially satellite televi-
sion, have contributed to the consolidation of an audio-visual rather than
a literate culture. The religious cassette is more powerful than several
printed books. The revolutionary religious Jihadi nashid (songs and
recitations) is more inspiring than volumes of ancient theological texts.
There is a darker side to this ongoing debate. Since the 1990s, political
violence has shattered the myth about Saudi Arabia as a secure country.
In 2003, the situation deteriorated. Suicide attacks on residential com-
pounds occupied mainly by non-Saudis, skirmishes amounting to battles
between security forces and al-Qaida members, the assassination of
public figures in remote towns and the unfolding of plots to assassinate
members of the royal family all point to the escalation of the battle
between the state and sections of society. More than at any other time,
Saudi society is polarised over religious interpretation and political aspi-
rations. Without ignoring the impact of rapid social and economic
change, the polarisation is primarily a product of the widening gap
between professed symbols and reality. The ongoing debate, together
with increased violence, simply indicates that Saudi Arabia is undergoing
a transformation rather than a reformation. The latter is a term deeply
rooted in European history with no applicability in a context such as
Saudi Arabia. Surveying the religious scene, one is struck by the absence
of a Saudi Luther. This is not surprising. Despite regime attempts to cir-
cumvent and control religious interpretation, there has never been a pope
in Saudi Arabia. Without a pope there will never be a Luther.
The televised repentance of the ‘misguided’ ulama, especially Jihadi
ideologues, invokes the image of repenting witches. Similarly, the tarajuat
(those going back on previous opinions) find their way to the local and
international press. This is a phenomenon in which individuals who are in
the process of changing their convictions, renouncing violence or devel-
oping new worldviews pose in front of television cameras, playing the role
of sages, and narrating their intellectual journey and its hazards. By the
age of thirty, many such men have experimented with various religious
14 Contesting the Saudi State

interpretations and acted in accordance with them. A number of individ-

uals move from ‘radicalism’ to the so-called middle path (wasatiyya), or
even to a new religiosity, searching for a humanist Islam.24 Such individu-
als claim to have abandoned Ibn Taymiyya and Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab in favour of Locke and Voltaire. Those who move in this
direction are celebrated in local and international media as people who
have abandoned misguided thoughts in favour of true moderate Islam.
Other Saudis condemn them as heretics who sin by promoting a rather
unusual interpretation of Islam. Many Saudis move in the opposite direc-
tion. We only know about those when they blow themselves up or die in
shoot-outs with security forces.
Official Saudi discourse highlights reasons for radicalism and terror-
ism, and celebrates the conversion of specific individuals to more moder-
ate views. As this book will show, some ‘conversions’ and ‘confessions’ are
expressed in less conventional ways, mainly in internet discussion boards
and, obviously, violence. These confessions tend to be in the opposite
direction, from moderate Islamism to radicalism, if we can invoke such
problematic classifications with ease. Saudi discourse is characterised by
shifting boundaries rather than clear-cut intellectual paradigms.
In capturing the contours of Saudi religio-political debate, this book
tries to identify what is being debated (the main contested social, reli-
gious and political areas); who claims to have the authority and knowl-
edge to contribute to the debate (state actors, ulama, intellectuals and
laymen) and where the debate takes place (public forums, the press and
the internet).
Given that religious discourse permeates all aspects of public debate, it
is very difficult to draw the boundaries between the religious, the political
and the social. Public debate revolves around key questions relating to the
nature of the state and its relationship with religion. More and more
Saudis are questioning whether their state is an Islamic state, something
which had been taken for granted for most of the twentieth century – at
least in public forums. Some are concerned with ‘theorising’ the nature of
the rightful Islamic government and the nature of the baya (the oath of
allegiance) to the legitimate ruler, another question ignored by an earlier
generation of ulama and intellectuals. Who selects the leader of the
Muslim community? Is it a small circle of ahl al-hall wa l-aqd (lit. ‘people
who loose and tie’: selected and appointed decision makers), or every
adult male member of the community? Are women eligible to select the
ruler and give baya? Or is this a theoretical question in the absence of
mechanisms allowing men to choose the ruler? These issues are no longer
the territory of al-nukhba, a small circle of the educated, articulate and
outspoken intelligentsia who engage in taraf fikri (intellectual luxuries),
Introduction: debating religion 15

but are now urgent matters attracting the attention of a wide circle of men
and women. Furthermore, relations with the outside world, mainly the
USA, and the Saudi role in the world are central in public debate.
The ongoing public debate in the twenty-first century is no longer the
one that dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Previously
Saudis discussed how to modernise while remaining faithful to the
authentic Islamic tradition. Today, the debate moves on to more complex
and focused questions relating to increasing political participation, social
justice, the rights of women and minorities, freedom of speech, an inde-
pendent judiciary and other urgent issues which many Saudis feel are
neither properly addressed nor fully applied by the current regime. These
concerns have emerged from the bottom up rather than as a result of royal
patronage or outside pressure. Saudi society debated these matters before
11 September and before a royal decree established the majlis al-hiwar al-
watani (National Dialogue Forum) in 2003. This confined and state-
controlled space does not move beyond being a public-relations exercise
envisaged to absorb public frustration and anger over the political paraly-
sis of the top leadership since the 1990s and the less than satisfactory
reforms of King Abdullah.
At the religious level, for the first time the debate centres on how
Saudi religious discourse deals with the ‘Muslim other’, who today is
not far away but is in the midst of the country. State-appointed religious
scholars, independent and dissident ulama and ordinary Saudis are
all engaged in a reflection on the status of other Muslims in their own
country. A minority among them questions interpretations which
demonised the other – for example, Sufis, Shiis, Ismailis and followers of
other madhahib (Hanafis, Shafiis, Malikis). Some Saudis go as far as
questioning the merit of the office of grand mufti (jurisconsult), consider-
ing it an invention, a bida (innovation), circumscribing religious interpre-
tation and creating kahanut (clergy). Others debate the benefits of the
state-appointed Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition
of Vice, hayat al-amr bil–maruf wa l-nahy an al-munkar. They criticise
its restriction to the guarding of public morality while ignoring corrup-
tion and deviation among the higher echelons of the political princely
elite. Some argue that the meaning of hisba (accountability) in Islam must
be wider than controlling the wearing of the hijab in the public sphere by
women or the flirtation of shabab (youth). Yet a small minority of Saudis
would prefer to abolish the institution altogether.
An integral part of public debate is the question of the status of women.
A distinction is beginning to emerge between the sharia position on
gender issues and what is referred to as tarasubat wa tarakumat ijtimaiyya
(social norms). Some Saudis call for a clear distinction between what
16 Contesting the Saudi State

Islam allows women to do and what social norms dictate. For the first time
Saudis are making a public distinction between the religious field and
social tradition. In short, today they no longer shy away from discussing
important religious principles and interpretations, to the extent that some
are openly reconsidering the heritage of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab,
whose message has held hegemonic status for almost 250 years.
This book addresses the question of who is entitled to lead the debate
and formulate opinions about the above-mentioned political and religious
issues. It identifies an emerging intellectual elite, al-nukhba al-fikriyya,
consisting of ulama and judges, intellectuals, professionals, dissidents,
writers close to the centre of power and others who are outside the politi-
cal patronage networks. While the book gives substantial space to those
who articulate a vision embedded in speech, text and other media, consid-
erable attention is paid to a novel field, that of the internet discussion
boards, opposition media networks and the discourse of ordinary Saudis.
Because of continuous state censorship, oppression of dissidents and the
imprisonment and torture of those who offer alternative visions, radical
public calls for the reformation of religion and politics increasingly take
place behind the scenes and are partially dependent on people who write
using pseudonyms. While the state builds and consolidates its own media
empire, dissident voices are successful in establishing alternative media
forums, thus challenging the official political and religious narrative.
Similarly, print and electronic publications have proved to be effective
means for the dissemination of alternative views and an entry into the
debate, which hitherto may have seemed elitist and exclusive.
The book gives special attention to the internet, which has become the
battleground of groups that are struggling to reinterpret religious con-
cepts, challenge established religious scholars, undermine religious
authority and thwart state politics. At the same time, internet discussion
boards are used to consolidate and spread official religious interpreta-
tions. Although the Saudi regime succeeded in establishing tight censor-
ship of this novel communication channel,25 Saudis with sufficient
financial resources purchase computer programs that allow them to avoid
censorship. More recently, radio channels broadcasting from London
(previously Islah Radio and now Debate Radio and Tajdid Radio) have
become accessible media outlets, as they can be listened to on satellite
television and the internet. The interactive style, together with the topics
discussed – especially criticism of the government and the traditional reli-
gious establishment – make such channels popular among Saudis search-
ing for outlets to express forbidden alternative opinions. The discussions
captured in this book draw on these sources, in addition to lengthy inter-
views and correspondence with Saudis.
Introduction: debating religion 17

Today debating religion and politics is no longer the monopoly of

a small circle of privileged individuals. Several groups are formulating the
agenda, participating in the debate and struggling to control the out-
come. These include the state, the traditional religious establishment,
dissident ulama, Islamist intellectuals, liberal activists and ordinary
Saudis. The picture is complicated further by external pressure and the
exposure of Saudi Arabia to outside scrutiny after 11 September. In order
to understand the debate described here, the role of the USA (adminis-
tration, media and scholarly community) must be taken into account to
assess the extent to which global pressure influences local religio-political
debates and outcomes.

The chapters
It is important to avoid easy classifications of those who are engaged in
the debate in a world dominated by multiple interpretations. Fluidity of
discourse, shifting boundaries and the ease with which people switch
from one position to another militate against clear-cut categories.
Classifications such as moderate, traditional, secular, liberal, centrist,
radical, Salafi and Sufi reflect the attempts of those who classify to fix
sometimes illusory boundaries rather than the way Saudis identify them-
selves.26 In their quest to define for policy makers ‘who is friend and who
is foe’, analysts propose typologies often more accurately reflecting the
power of word-processing programs than the reality of the diverse
Muslim tradition in the twenty-first century. We can recall that Sufis, who
are currently hailed as among the greatest pacifists of all times, can be
extremely revolutionary, anti-Western and even radical. Those who are
classified as traditional, preaching vigorous commitment to Islamic
rituals, can easily inflame the imagination of young Muslims who are
united by common faith and worship.
It must be said that after fourteen centuries of its existence, neither
Muslim governments nor colonial powers have been able to control reli-
gious debate within Islam. Throughout Muslim history scholars and
others had to live with religious diversity and a general inability to control
religious interpretation. In fact, the more they tried to control religious
interpretation, the more such interpretations proliferated. As a world reli-
gion with a sacred text that is constantly interpreted in specific contexts,
Islam, its interpreters and their interpretations can never be successfully
controlled or pointed in a particular direction.
In order to promote the kind of Islam desired by Western governments,
the context in which the interpretation of texts takes place must be the
right one. While texts can be easily censored, modified, altered, shortened
18 Contesting the Saudi State

and expanded, their interpretations remain firmly grounded in specific

contexts. In addition, while mosque preachers, religious teachers and
instructors can be imprisoned, eliminated or rehabilitated and taught
new interpretations, their new preaching will have limited impact if the
right context is simply not there.
Unfortunately the Muslim world in general and Saudi Arabia in partic-
ular does not find itself at the moment in a context that favours the pro-
motion and internalisation of the discourse that celebrates peace,
tolerance and harmony, as desired by the West, repressive governments in
the region and the majority of Muslims. In fact, both the West and such
governments created contexts in which these desired interpretations are
impossible to emerge. A combination of factors, agents and powerful
media images combined to consolidate a social and political context in
which uncompromising interpretations increasingly find resonance. In
the twenty-first century, Saudis resent their political vulnerability against
a background of economic prosperity, dependence on the West against a
rhetoric of sovereignty and pride, political impotence against rhetoric that
glorifies their historical role in spreading Islam and their inability to trans-
late wealth into real power. There is tension between globalised deterrito-
rialised religious identity, based on belief in common Islamic values and
celebrated in the idiom of the unity of the Muslim umma, and underde-
veloped nationalist sentiments. National identities are undermined by
localised regional, tribal and sectarian belonging. In the modern world of
Saudi Arabia, globalised and localised identities are articulated at the
expense of national belonging.
Notwithstanding the fluidity of the religio-political debate and the
ability of those who are engaged in it to cross boundaries and change posi-
tions, presenting the debate in a book imposes its own rules. Writing about
this ongoing debate requires the author to organise the material in chap-
ters, which immediately imposes a classification and a way of organising
the data. I chose to present the data in six chapters, each capturing a
glimpse of the main features and concerns of a specific trend. However, it
must be kept in mind that each chapter refers to arguments and interpre-
tations promoted by groups who escape easy classification. One of the
main themes is to show that people can frequently switch allegiance and
change direction. Another theme is to show that interpretations grounded
in one particular trend (or chapter) can be used and interpreted to mean
anything but what was initially intended. A religious scholar can easily
situate himself in the discourse of official ulama, then move to a Sahwi
position, but later end up as a Jihadi ideologue. He can easily do that while
invoking the same religious texts as the official religious establishment.
The journey in the opposite direction is equally possible.
Introduction: debating religion 19

The first chapter deals with the religio-political discourse of those who
may or may not be employed by the state but who all endorse interpreta-
tions that promote consent and obedience to rulers. Such scholars and
laymen draw on the Wahhabi tradition and its early disciples. They are
referred to as official ulama because they not only legitimise power but
also condemn attempts to challenge this power. The chapter discusses the
genealogy and geography of this discourse. It traces its development and
describes its objectives, mainly the consolidation of consenting subjects,
people who leave politics to those who know better. This chapter chal-
lenges the view that the Saudi state of today is an Islamic Wahhabi state. It
argues that there is a clear distinction between the Islamised public social
sphere and politics. Politics is disenchanted in Saudi Arabia. It is no
longer anchored in Islam as claimed by the leadership
Against this disenchantment, some Saudis have struggled for the past
three decades to re-enchant politics, the subject of chapter 2. The so-
called Sahwis represent an attempt to contest the status quo, namely the
disenchantment of the world of politics and power. Regardless of their
party affiliation, Sahwis represented a plea to Islamise politics after the
regime departed from what they regarded as Islamic principles. The story
of Sahwa (sahwa: awakening) is well documented but its later develop-
ment is not so well known. Chapter 2 captures the debate within Sahwa
after 11 September when this so-called awakening came under pressure
from the regime and other sections of Saudi society to reconsider its early
Chapter 3 traces the transnationalisation of Saudi religio-political dis-
course as it travelled under regime sponsorship to places such as
Afghanistan and London. I argue that this discourse prematurely moved
from obvious localism to transnationalism with unintended conse-
quences for the Saudi regime. In Afghanistan, Wahhabiyya freed itself
from its status as parasitic discourse that had grown in the shadow of the
sultan. Regardless of how strong or efficient the sponsors of transnational
flows were, the outcome escaped their control. Sometimes it seemed that
the more the Saudi regime spent on spreading its religious discourse, the
more promoters and recipients of this discourse resisted Saudi hegemony
and asserted their own autonomy. Some propagators of Saudi religious
flows proved to be autonomous agents once they found themselves
beyond the reach of Saudi authoritarianism. The transnationalised con-
senting Wahhabi tradition generated serious contestation of the Islamic
credentials of the Saudi regime itself. In Afghanistan and London, com-
peting with heavy Saudi spending on religious flows, there appeared the
most revolutionary rhetoric that not only challenged the Saudi regime but
also accused it of blasphemy.
20 Contesting the Saudi State

Chapter 4 analyses Jihadi discourse as presented by dissident ulama,

activists and laymen. I argue that far from being an imported Islamist ide-
ology, Jihadism is a local tradition that resonates with cultural, religious
and political contexts. It invokes shared meanings and symbols. Jihad is
not only about archaic words and religious interpretations. Neither is it a
quest for the ‘Talibanisation’ of Saudi Arabia, as claimed by Saudi princes
addressing Western audiences. In the twenty-first century, Jihadism is a
performance that captures the imagination of many Saudi men and
women who are not necessarily poor, alienated and downtrodden. It
invokes meanings which are at the heart of the Wahhabi tradition. Its dis-
course flourishes because there is a political and social context which
makes it resonate with people.
Through the life of one Saudi, chapter 5 traces the personal journey of
a young Jihadi man called Lewis and his navigation of a very difficult and
complex religio-political field. An analysis of his words and autobiogra-
phy allows us to see the world through his own eyes. It also allows us to
comprehend why an educated Saudi invokes Islam to articulate a desire
to change the world. Having spent years acquiring a Western education,
Lewis returns to reassert his Arabian and Muslim identity. While he defi-
nitely has multiple identities, he celebrates only one.
The final chapter examines the Saudi quest for the unmediated word of
God. The quest is a product of modernity rather than archaic and obscu-
rantist inclinations. To worship God without mediators is an idiom that
inspires many Saudis to challenge political hierarchies and religious
monopolies. Furthermore, to worship God without mediators is the ulti-
mate outcome of modernity that empowers man to seek direct relation-
ship with the divine, a relationship that is not ‘corrupted’ or ‘violated’ by
the intervention of another human. Mass education and literacy allow
this to happen. This quest threatens to erode the pillars of authoritarian
rule: history, theology and politics.
The book depends on a mixture of methodologies. I consulted classical
works by the early generation of aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya (Najdi religious
scholars) from Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to Abdulaziz Ibn Baz. I
have supplemented classical texts with an analysis of public lectures,
mosque sermons and media statements. To capture the growing debate,
especially that which is still unacceptable in public, I consulted many
internet websites and discussion boards. Finally, I have interviewed many
Saudis; some I came to know very well, while others will remain virtual.
I exchanged e-mails with strangers and even spoke to them on the phone
without knowing their real identity. I initiated contacts with some, while a
few contacted me directly. They knew me but I will probably never
know their real names. They opened up and presented a rich tapestry of
Introduction: debating religion 21

arguments, evidence and analysis of their own. They were great conversa-
tionalists, open discussants and daring voices, once they found themselves
outside the restrictions of official religion and politics. I will always
remember their anonymous voices and aliases. As far as I was concerned,
guessing the symbolic significance of their noms de plume proved to be one
of the most challenging but intellectually rewarding experiences.
This book is written neither to glorify Wahhabiyya nor to condemn it.
There are hundreds of books that seek to do both. My objective is to
capture contemporary debate about religion and politics. I have an advan-
tage as a result of my presence outside Saudi Arabia, which grants me the
freedom to subject Wahhabiyya, its advocates and adversaries to serious
scrutiny, drawing on interpretive and analytical tools – an impossible aca-
demic endeavour in Saudi Arabia itself. I examine Wahhabiyya as a reli-
gious discourse produced by people rather than as a sacred tradition. I
have not come across an impartial sociological or anthropological study of
religion and religious practice or a scholarly work on contemporary ulama
or the royal family conducted by a Saudi researcher.27 If such studies exist,
they tend to glorify the ulama’s role without critical evaluation. There are
several chronicles and biographies of famous ulama and umara (princes).
But these are a different kind of work. Scholarly investigation of the umara
and ulama remains taboo. To study religion and politics from a social sci-
entific perspective, without demonstrating the umara and ulama’s contri-
bution to Islam and Muslims, violates the taboo. To study both and
conclude that they mystify the world, legitimise authoritarian rule, sanc-
tion despotism and produce both consenting and rebellious subjects
amounts to blasphemy. To capture the ongoing Saudi debate that contests
official religious discourse amounts to privileging the despised and dan-
gerous other. I have violated the taboo with a clear conscience. As a result
of this academic exercise, my faith is solid and is in fact stronger. I con-
tinue to retain one aspect of Wahhabiyya, namely worshipping God
without mediators but I strongly reject its claim that obeying the Al-Saud
rulers and Wahhabi ulama is part of obeying God and the Prophet.
Saudis inside the country debate Wahhabiyya. Those who go ‘too far’
are usually imprisoned and subjected to restrictions and harassment.
Daring arguments are often veiled under pseudonyms and anonymous
internet discussion boards. This book is an attempt to unveil the debate.
The unveiling proved to me that it is easy to explain why people rebel but
much harder to explain why they consent. This book is an attempt to
address both.
1 Consenting subjects: official Wahhabi
religio-political discourse

O ye who believe Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and those
charged with authority among you. If ye differ in anything among your-
selves, refer to God and His Messenger, if ye
Do believe in Allah and the Last Day: that is best, and most suitable
for final determination. Quran, Sura al-nisa, verse 59

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wahhabi chronicles claimed

that the message of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92) in
Deriyyah aimed to revive religion by returning to the Quran, Sunna and
the tradition of the pious ancestors. While the sheikh and his followers
never accepted the label Wahhabis, they considered themselves to be ahl
al-sunna wa l-jamaa (people of tradition and community), or ahl
al-tawhid (al-muwahhidun: the people of monotheism). In contemporary
scholarship, they represent one of the Salafi trends within Sunni Islam.1
The return to the tradition of the pious ancestors was meant to
remove religious innovations, and apply the sharia at a time when
the population of Arabia was believed to have degenerated into blas-
phemy, corrupt religious practices and laxity. This allegedly took place
mainly under Ottoman rule,2 whose religious traditions, particularly
Sufism, incorporated interpretations and practices considered outside
the realm of true Islam. The rhetoric of the return to the pious ances-
tors and the sacred text, in addition to rejecting madhahib (schools
of jurisprudence), allows Wahhabiyya to be counted as a Salafi move-
Wahhabiyya painted an image of Arabia as the land of blasphemy and
savagery. The myth that Arabian society was blasphemous prior to the
rise of Wahhabiyya is taken for granted by many Saudi and Western
scholars without any serious attempt to revisit what has become a ‘divine
wisdom’ initially propagated by the supporters of Wahhabiyya, and later
on by outside commentators. In a recent assessment of the evolution of
Wahhabiyya, the blasphemy of other Muslims is taken for granted as a
historical fact without any serious attempt to question the validity and

Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 23

accuracy of this assumption.3 Like the Saudi royal family, Wahhabi

descriptions of the past are sacrosanct.
Throughout the twentieth century, many – but not all – Saudis
regarded the Salafi–Wahhabi movement as a solution to heterodoxy, reli-
gious laxity, saint veneration, immorality and superstition. Wahhabiyya
claimed to safeguard the souls of its followers against the misguided Islam
of others, such as other Sunnis, Shiis, Sufis, Zaydis, Ismailis and grave-
worshippers (known as quburis).4 It was also regarded as a shield against
subsequent ‘corrupting’ Western influences, undesirable social behaviour
and immoral and unacceptable alien ideas such as secularism, national-
ism, communism and liberalism. Wahhabiyya promised liberation from
heterodox religious worship and folk Islam, the Islam practised by either a
jahil (ignorant), or dhal (one who has gone astray). So-called misguided
Muslims who deviated in their creed and worship from the right path
were seen as practising a corrupted religion, often dominated by
mushawithun (charlatans) parading as holy men, witches, sorcerers and
mystics. Such ‘corrupted’ Islam is centred on excessive ritual and festiv-
ity, punctuated by tomb visiting, intercession and mediation. Saudis
viewed the religious practices dominant among Sunnis in other Arab
countries as impure and corrupted. Wahhabiyya condemned all these folk
practices as innovations and privileged the literal interpretation of sacred
texts, the Quran and the Sunna, and called for an unmediated relation-
ship with the divine, required by tawhid, the oneness of God. In religious
discourse, the umma consists of sinners who need to be reprimanded and
brought back to the true path.
Wahhabi demonisation of Arabian society in both past and present
stems from the movement’s desire to control and gain legitimacy. Wahhabi
legitimacy today rests on a myth that was perpetuated by generations of
Wahhabi writers, historians, religious scholars and laymen, as well as
royalty. The myth claims that Muslims in Arabia were and are blasphe-
mous, and their salvation is entirely dependent on the message of
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and the political power that endorsed his
message, the Al-Saud family. The Wahhabi narrative of the past under-
mines the seventh-century message of the Prophet Muhammad. If one is
to believe this narrative, one must accept that the Prophet’s message had
virtually no lasting influence. The teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab were therefore needed to correct corruption and ignorance that
had crept into the religion. If Wahhabiyya and the Al-Saud were accom-
plices in the salvation of Arabian society, then they must be obeyed,
revered and sanctified. Saudi–Wahhabi efforts at mystifying the past have
resulted in the disappearance of sources that might have challenged the
myth about the alleged blasphemy in Arabia in the pre-Wahhabi era. Even
24 Contesting the Saudi State

if tomb visiting, saint veneration or tree worship was practised in Arabian

society, it cannot be taken for granted that all members of that society
indulged in such practices. It is possible that they only existed among a
minority of the population. However, such myths have continued to domi-
nate the historiography of the movement, often written by its own ulama.5
This demonisation of Arabian society continued in the twentieth century
in order to justify the establishment of the modern Saudi state.6
The war against the so-called blasphemous religious practices that sur-
vived despite the sacred message of the Prophet Muhammad in the
seventh century and a later wave of religious revivalism and purification
in the eighteenth century by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was always
in need of a political authority.7 In Wahhabi discourse, an executive power
is needed to protect faith from corruption, uphold the Salafi tradition and
punish transgressors. Only a strong and pious state can practise the fun-
damental Islamic obligation of amr bi l-maruf wa l-nahy an al-munkar
(the promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice).8
It is important, however, to emphasise that describing the Wahhabi
movement as a puritan tradition does not necessarily imply austerity or
asceticism. While the ecology of the area where Wahhabiyya originated
was austere in the past, the advocates of the movement were partly driven
by a desire to amass wealth and treasures from the conquered territories,
to compensate for the poverty of their homeland. Wahhabi historians cel-
ebrated the collection of booty from the conquered territories with a
strong sense of pleasure and satisfaction as they described the newly
acquired treasures that were brought first to Deriyyah and later Riyadh.
The conquests did not only mean the spread of monotheism, as claimed,
but also the seizure of camels, horses, weapons and coins.9
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab considered it a characteristic of the
people in the age of ignorance to ‘worship God through prohibiting the
permissible’, implying that excessive austerity does not make one closer
to the divine.10 Oil wealth and consumerism enabled Wahhabi ulama, the
ruling group and Saudi society in general to indulge in a great degree of
material consumption and the fulfilment of all worldly desires, within the
limits prescribed in the holy book and the tradition of the Prophet – at
least in public. The dawa (call) was from the very beginning a project to
create an Islamised personality, society and state, according to Wahhabi
criteria. An Islamised personality is not necessarily one that abstains from
worldly pleasures, as often mistakenly projected in some outside accounts
of the movement. In fact, it indulges itself fully in all permissible plea-
sures, according to Islamic tradition in general, and the Wahhabi variant
in particular. An Islamised personality also enjoys the gains that accrue to
it as a result of God’s nima (grace). In the past this grace had come from
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 25

conquering new territories and looting its population, whereas in modern

times oil became the main source. Wahhabis may be seen as excessive in
resorting to the principle of sad al-tharai (‘blocking the means’) – for
example, when they continue to prohibit certain practices in order to
prevent possible sins (for example the ban on women driving), yet they do
not and cannot forbid pleasures that are divinely permitted.11 However, a
group of religious scholars is always needed to define and regulate the
permissible, while the state ensures that the prohibited does not become
permissible, at least in theory.
In the twentieth century a state was born, under the pretext of fighting
religious innovations, to protect the realm and ensure its purity against
the return of such innovations. With excessive coercion, Wahhabiyya was
extremely successful in eradicating most but not all so-called religious
innovations in the Arabian Peninsula. With the establishment of the
modern Saudi state, Wahhabiyya became a hegemonic discourse sup-
ported, protected and promoted by political authority. However,
although Wahhabi ulama and preachers were convinced that the state
reflected Wahhabi teachings, this was an illusion. Wahhabi scholars con-
trolled nothing but religious praxis and the social sphere, while royalty
and a group of technocrats with modern educations were in full control of
politics, the economy, foreign relations and defence matters.12 The state
needed Wahhabi ulama to control the social sphere in such a way as to
ensure compliance. The appearance of an Islamised social sphere was
mistakenly taken to represent an Islamic polity.
Under state control, there were in fact multiple interpretations within
the hegemonic Wahhabi discourse. While the state strove to contain
Wahhabi discourse through its institutionalisation, alternative interpreta-
tions and marginal but challenging Wahhabi voices continued to appear
throughout the twentieth century. These voices articulated alternative
visions, which occasionally resulted in violence, as the history of Salafi
dissidence in the country demonstrated.13 State control of Wahhabiyya
was directly proportionate to the violence that erupted. The proliferation
of state-financed and controlled religious institutions, ministries and
hierarchies generated co-opted and independent scholars; the first
enforced loyalty to the state while the second remained a potential threat.
Through its substantial wealth, the state patronised circles of religious
knowledge. The state created co-opted networks but some remained
outside the circle of royal patronage. As relations between royalty and
religious notables were personalised, there were bound to be certain indi-
viduals outside the circle.
Who has corrupted the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab
and the chain of scholars known as aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya, the imams
26 Contesting the Saudi State

of the Najdi call? Who has remained faithful to these teachings? These
are central questions that accompanied the institutionalisation of
Wahhabiyya in the second half of the twentieth century and the search for
answers continues in the twenty-first century. The question for Wahhabis
was not the legitimacy of their previous claims about Arabian society and
its alleged blasphemy, but about the degree to which contemporary
royalty, Wahhabi ulama and laymen have remained faithful to the
message of the founder. Because of censorship and heavy sanctions
against dissident voices, both religious and political, violence accompa-
nied the process of state subjugation of Wahhabiyya, which began to frag-
ment into several strands. Today debating the movement does not take
place among a small and limited group of ulama. A wide circle of people
discuss controversial religious matters, thanks to mass education and
media. Violence in the twenty-first century is yet another episode of alter-
native Wahhabi interpretations erupting, this time not only in Saudi
Arabia, but also worldwide, especially among groups that claim ideologi-
cal and organisational connections with the original Wahhabiyya.
Under Saudi control, Wahhabiyya became a religious discourse used
by political authority against society and a weapon wielded by society
against this authority. Its interpretations are neither representative of the
Sunni tradition nor a culmination of consensus among the people known
as ahl al-sunna wa l-jamaa. It is, in fact, a hybrid tradition that matured
under royal authority. While it draws on well-known Hanbali sources
without becoming a monolithic tradition, Wahhabiyya is a product of the
historical and political context of growing in the ‘shadow of the Saudi
sultan’. It is a religious discourse that evolved in response to the concerns
of political authority. As such, it was subject to schisms, dissent, transfor-
mation and mutation.
In the twenty-first century official Wahhabiyya is a discourse of con-
sent. It propagates religious interpretations that require subservience to
political authority. This chapter traces the contours of Wahhabi religio-
political discourse, especially that related to the mystification of the world
for the purpose of consolidating the state and perpetuating obedience to
rulers. To understand the Wahhabi contribution to state formation and its
later perpetuation of a tradition of total subservience to power, the narra-
tive in this chapter moves from the original sources (mainly the writings
of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab) to the contemporary invocations of
the Wahhabi tradition.14 It demonstrates how the establishment of the
current Saudi state, together with the forces of modernity, contributed to
two outcomes as far as Wahhabiyya is concerned. Both the state and
the forces of modernity led both to the consolidation of a consenting
Wahhabi discourse and the contestation of this discourse. Under the
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 27

banner of the contemporary Saudi state, Wahhabiyya developed this

double discourse. It is important to begin by introducing the interpreters
of Wahhabiyya.

Genealogies and geographies of people of knowledge

Like any religious discourse, Wahhabiyya is dependent on the so-called
‘people of knowledge’, who claim to articulate its message, uphold its tra-
dition and guard its spirit. Wahhabiyya depended both on people of
knowledge and on the protection of political power, without which it was
at the risk of disintegrating and vanishing. As it lacked the power of per-
suasion in the early decades of the eighteenth century, it needed the
sword. Yet this sword had to be Islamised to be effective.
From the eighteenth century Wahhabi discourse was developed and
defended by those locally known as aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya, ‘religious
notables’ who were closely associated with central Arabia, the geographi-
cal region known as Najd. To be more precise, the early advocates of
Wahhabiyya were drawn from southern Najd, mainly the small towns,
oases and villages to the south and south-west of Riyadh.15 Their oppo-
nents in Najd referred to Wahhabiyya as the ‘new religion of al-Aridh’, a
reference to the region where it originated. Yet in the minds of outsiders,
Najd and Wahhabiyya are mistakenly considered inseparable. Similarly,
Wahhabiyya and the sedentary Banu Tamim, the tribe to which the Al-
Shaykh family of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and substantial sec-
tions of the sedentary population of Arabia belonged, are closely
interrelated in the imagination and historiography of the region.16 From
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab Al-Shaykh to present Saudi mufti
Abdulaziz Al-Shaykh, one can count at least fifteen al-Shaykh scholars
who occupied very important posts in the religious hierarchy. In 2005
both the mufti and the minister of religious affairs belonged to Al-
Shaykh. The highest religious authority had always been occupied by an
Al-Shaykh, although mufti Abdulaziz ibn Baz (1912–99) was an excep-
tion. However, although the so-called aima (religious scholars) belonging
to the Al-Shaykh family were prominent and had a near monopoly on
high religious posts, other Najdi families were among those who pre-
served and developed the Wahhabi tradition.17
While the socio-economic background of the aima in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries is well documented,18 we need merely say here
that the genealogy of the Wahhabi religious tradition was historically
anchored in the sedentary families of southern Najd, with very limited
infiltration from families from other provinces in the Arabian Peninsula,
other tribal groups or the Muslim world in general. The so-called ulama
28 Contesting the Saudi State

of Najd who were counted as part of aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya included

members from families such as al-Bassam, al-Bulayhid, al-Angari, al-
Sayf, al-Mutawa, al-Atiq, al-Fawzan and others.19 Members of these fam-
ilies and their descendants became the state religious notables. Today
scholars belonging to these families represent a contemporary noblesse
détat who delivered to the state vast numbers of docile subjects. They
were the intellectual instruments of political domination par excellence.20
Wahhabiyya remained a regional religious tradition kept alive by the
sedentary southern Najdi religious families for over two hundred years.
In the second half of the twentieth century, and specifically in the later
decades, advocates of Wahhabi–Salafi discourse began to be drawn from
a wider circle of people belonging to families and regions recently con-
verted to Wahhabiyya as a result of their incorporation in the Saudi realm
in 1932. Bligh argues that since the 1940, there has been a decline in the
number of ulama belonging to Al-Shaykh because they were less polyga-
mous than royalty, and several members of the family chose non-religious
careers.21 It is also possible that the Al-Saud wanted to widen the circle of
religious experts to weaken the monopoly of Al-Shaykh over religious dis-
course. The state itself opened the noblesse détat to a wide circle as it
established its hegemony over newly conquered territories that needed to
internalise the consenting discourse. Widening the circle was also a strat-
egy to counter reliance on one kinship solidarity group. Furthermore, it is
perhaps easier to dominate religious scholars who belong to less promi-
nent families than those belonging to well-established religious lineages.
This ‘opening up’ of the religious circle both geographically and
genealogically was also a product of Wahhabi proselytising beyond the
limited geography of southern Najd, Qasim and its environs.
State control over religious discourse manifested itself clearly after the
termination of the Ikhwan rebellion in 1927 when Wahhabiyya was insti-
tutionalised and Ibn Saud declared that only a number of named religious
scholars were entitled to give religious opinion and issue fatwas. This circle
became the nucleus of the noblesse détat. Scholars who were not approved
by the Riyadh ulama were not allowed to preach or interpret texts. The
approved were Abdullah ibn Abd al-Latif Al-Shaykh, Saad ibn Atiq,
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif al-Shaykh, Abdullah al-Angari, Abdullah
ibn Sulaym, and Abdulrahman ibn Salim, a coterie that included the most
loyal ulama.22 This royal decision, supported by other loyal Riyadh-based
ulama, together with later bureaucratisation and further institutional-
isation, set the scene not only for the emergence of schisms within
Wahhabiyya but also for its later contestation in the twentieth century.
With the establishment of the modern state in 1932, both the genealo-
gies and geographies of religion were stretched beyond Najd and its
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 29

religious families. The Najdi imams, although initially a very small group,
travelled from Riyadh to preach and apply the sharia in distant lands – for
example, in the Hijaz, Asir, and the Northern and Eastern provinces. A
Salafi tradition existed in the Hijaz before the new conquest; it was not,
however, the only religious tradition or even the dominant one, but coex-
isted with other Islamic schools and Sufi turuq (sg. tariqa). With the
expansion of the modern state, the situation changed. Wahhabi interpre-
tations dominated the religious field while other discourses and practices
went underground.
While some scholars left the capital, other people came to Riyadh to
seek religious knowledge directly from the aima, mainly the al-Shaykh
scholars and their intimate circle of disciples. Famous aima served as
important transmitters of religious knowledge, while their intellectual
genealogies anchored their discourse in the tradition of the early scholars.
Migration to and emigration from Riyadh were two parallel movements
that widened the circle of recruits and ensured the traditional transmission
of religious knowledge to a new generation at a time when there were no
formal religious educational institutions in the country. Both masters and
disciples23 continued to be drawn mainly from the sedentary communities
of the Arabian Peninsula. In the pre-oil period, their livelihood depended
on a combination of agriculture, trade and very simple cottage industries.
In the new state after 1932, traditional religious education guaranteed
social mobility both from the geographical periphery and from the
margins of society to the centre of religious learning and political power.
Religious education offered the prospect of employment as preacher,
judge and mosque imam in territories that had been recently incorporated
into the realm and had to be initiated into the new religio-political tradi-
tion. Migration to Riyadh in pursuit of religious knowledge was also a
move to prosperity from the poverty-stricken peripheral regions in the
pre-oil period. Riyadh became the religious centre par excellence, the seat
of the noblesse détat, at the expense of the historically and religiously more
important centres, Mecca and Madina. The establishment of the Saudi
state marginalised these individual centres of religious learning, as its con-
quests were religious as well as military and territorial. The state sent its
own people of knowledge, emissaries whose aim was to ‘Saudise’ and
‘Wahhabise’ newly conquered territories, thus ensuring their political sub-
jugation and loyalty. New disciples turned up in Riyadh to be closer not
only to the pillars of religious knowledge but also to political power.
Religious indoctrination was a solid foundation for political subservience.
It promised domesticated and acquiescent subjects.
The biographies of two important aima members of the religious
noblesse détat, who played a central role in the consolidation of Wahhabi
30 Contesting the Saudi State

discourse in the twentieth century are revealing, as they reflect the chang-
ing geographies and genealogies of religion under the auspices of the
modern state. The first is the biography of Sheikh Muhammad ibn
Ibrahim ibn Abd al-Latif Al-Shaykh (1311–86/1890–1969), a descendant
of the Al-Shaykh family, the religious nobility of the Najdi mission, who
for a long time maintained a historical monopoly over the highest reli-
gious posts in the kingdom in return for an undisputed loyalty to the Al-
Saud.24 The second biography is that of Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Baz, who
was outside that religious nobility but managed to become the highest
religious authority as mufti until his death in 1999. Both sheikhs were
Najdis, however: the first represented the monopoly of the closed circle of
al-Shaykh, whereas the second embodied the opening up of the closed
circle, which began to include in its rank and file people drawn from other
less prominent families both inside and outside southern Najd.
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim served the Saudi state between 1932
and 1969, occupying about eighteen posts, assisted by brothers, sons and
cousins. He was born in Riyadh in 1311 (1890). He learnt the Quran at
the age of ten and became blind at the age of sixteen. His father, Sheikh
Ibrahim, was the qadi of Riyadh. In addition to his father and uncles, his
mentors were the famous ulama of Riyadh, for example Saad ibn Atiq,
Hamad ibn Faris, and Abdullah ibn Rashid.25 He is described as having
grown up in a wealthy household, which freed him from poverty. In addi-
tion, he grew up in Riyadh, described as ‘the capital where students take
refuge to study and work. They lived in an atmosphere that encourages
competition for religious excellence.’26 According to his biographers, he
benefited from the fact that ‘Najdi ulama enjoyed a distinguished status
among both the authority and the people’.27 For thirty years
(1340–70AH) ‘he listened to readers of the Quran with attention, until
God opened the chests of the earth [a reference to oil], then Riyadh
became a centre attracting ulama from different parts of the world’.28
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim is described as someone who
witnessed the changes that swept Saudi Arabia, especially the rejection of all things
old, people began to see pious men as backward. People abandoned religious
knowledge (ulum shariyya) in favour of foreign languages, and natural sciences.
The Sheikh warned against this sudden change, which was a direct reflection of
modernisation arriving in Saudi Arabia. He advised wulat al-amr to open al-
maahid al-ilmiyya [colleges that teach Arabic and sharia]. The ulama lured stu-
dents with gifts and rewards. The Sheikh was responsible for the colleges.29
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim was behind establishing the Islamic University
in Madina, whose purpose was to train students from all over the Muslim
world and enhance the call to religion. In its early days, the university
recruited 75 per cent of its students from the Muslim world and
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 31

25 per cent from Saudi Arabia. He was also responsible for the education
of girls through his appointed aide, Nasir al-Rashid. His biographer lists
sixty-seven famous scholars and judges who trained with him, among
them Abdulaziz ibn Baz, Abdullah ibn Humaid, Salih al-Shaykh,
Abdullah ibn Jibrin, Abdullah al-Masari, Hamad ibn Jasir and Salih
al-Lohaydan, the core of the noblesse détat that dominated the Saudi reli-
gious field in the second half of the twentieth century.30
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim’s famous epistle, Risalat tahkim
al-qawanin, in which he denounced secular labour legislation, is held in
esteem among his followers and contemporary Salafis, especially those
who lament the ulama’s loss of freedom and independence.31 In this
epistle, the sheikh announced that it is a great blasphemy to introduce
new legislation because ‘the sharia is the source of all legislation’.32
Today he is regarded by several Jihadi ideologues as one of the ulama who
was most faithful to the original message of Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab. This perhaps prompted contemporary Jihadi Sheikh Nasir
al-Fahad to write a biography of this alim. According to this biography,
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim married six times, and at the time of his
death he had three wives. His responsibilities included leading prayers,
preaching and teaching in his mosque, as well as more advanced posts
such as chief of justice, mufti, head of the founding council of Rabitat
al-Alam al-Islami and director of the Islamic University. As a religious
authority, his legacy survived in his disciples, among them Sheikh
Abdulaziz ibn Baz. His lessons also attracted royalty. It was reported that
Prince Muhammad ibn Abdulaziz ibn Saud (a son of Ibn Saud) and
Prince Musaid ibn Abdurahman ibn Saud (brother of Ibn Saud) were
regular visitors to his study circle. Scholars from the Muslim world
were known to have visited him and benefited from his knowledge, for
example Sheikhs Ahmad Shakir, Muhammad Hamid al-Faqi, and
Muhammad al-Shanqiti.33
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim’s study circle attracted those who
sought religious knowledge and training. In the age prior to mass educa-
tion, it was the centre par excellence. He was a descendant of the famous
Al-Shaykh family, which made him the model of the revered Wahhabi
alim. Genealogy guaranteed Muhammad ibn Ibrahim a special status in
the eyes of his disciples. He lived through that transitional period in which
the monopoly of his family began to be broken down as a result of the
transformation of the circle of knowledge. It was a twilight zone, when
Saudi Arabia was beginning to gradually shed its past without being yet
firmly anchored in the new age. New disciples outside the traditional reli-
gious families began to be incorporated into the circle of religious schol-
ars. After Ibn Ibrahim’s death, King Faysal announced the establishment
32 Contesting the Saudi State

of a seventeen-member Council of Senior Ulama in 1971. This was the

beginning of the institutionalisation of Wahhabiyya, although its subjuga-
tion to political authority dates back to the 1920s.34
One disciple of the sheikh was the famous Abdulaziz ibn Baz
(1912–99). Ibn Baz succeeded Muhammad ibn Ibrahim as one of the
most influential non-Al-Shaykh Wahhabi scholars since the 1970s. The
biography of Sheikh Ibn Baz demonstrates the expansion of the circle of
aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya beyond the well-known al-Shaykh. According
to his biography, Ibn Baz’s family originally came from Madina to
Deriyyah. Later the family moved to Hawtat Bani Tamim. He grew up in
Riyadh and never left it except for the pilgrimage. He belonged to a family
whose members practised trade and agriculture and which produced
several religious scholars.35 Like his mentor, Sheikh Ibn Baz became
blind later in life. Nevertheless he has memorised the Quran at an early
age, helped by the Riyadh ulama and readers. He occupied the post of
judge in several towns before he returned to Riyadh and became
member of the Council of Senior Ulama and later the mufti of Saudi
Arabia in 1993, a post that had remained vacant after the death of Ibn
Ibrahim in 1969.
It is at the hands of sheikhs such as Ibn Baz, together with sheikhs
Muhammad al-Uthaymin, Abd al-Muhsin al-Obaykan, Salih al-Fawzan,
the current mufti Abdulaziz Al-Shaykh and many others that the
Wahhabi tradition underwent a transformation beyond genealogy and
geography. Under their guidance Wahhabiyya ceased to be a religious
revivalist Salafi movement and became an apologetic institutionalised
religious discourse intimately tied to political authority. Ibn Baz and other
members of the Council of Senior Ulama provided the intellectual input,
namely the religious discourse which confirmed the servitude of religion
to the state. Ibn Baz’s inability to engage with the politics of the modern
world and the superficiality of his religious opinions and interpretations
contributed to the trivialisation of the Wahhabi message. Ibn Baz,
however, is perhaps more famous for several controversial opinions, one
of which was the fatwa justifying the invitation of foreign troops to Saudi
Arabia during the 1990–1 Gulf War and his 1993 fatwa legitimising peace
with Israel.36 These religious opinions confirmed official Wahhabiyya in
its role as a state religion and the official people of knowledge as sub-
servient ‘clergy’.
In order to survive as traditional religious notables in an age where the
state began to be dominated by technocrats who were mainly educated
abroad, the official Wahhabi ulama, under the religious leadership of Ibn
Baz, ceased to be independent mediators between government and gov-
erned; they confined themselves to being guardians of public morality.
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 33

This amounted to enforcing the appearance of a highly Islamised public

sphere, represented by the number of mosques in cities, minarets calling
for prayers, predominance of religious education, segregation of the
sexes, government spending on proselytising inside the country and
abroad, and other related matters of appearance. Official Wahhabi ulama
abandoned their role as loosely organised religious intellectuals who
guard the sacred tradition, interpret it to the public and mediate between
state and society. This mediating role was what Saudis expected from
them. With state co-optation they developed into a class in its own right
and with its own interests. The majority of them confirmed political
decisions by providing a religious seal of approval for policy matters.37
Official ulama sanctioned authoritarian rule and anchored it in religious
Official Wahhabi ulama turned to defensive conservatism as they
encountered the drastic changes that swept the country in the second half
of the twentieth century. They continued to discipline society, in some
instances a practice amounting to coercion, while state politics – mainly
foreign relations, defence and the economy – remained beyond their
reach and religious rulings. Although the Council of Senior Ulama was
meant to provide general guidance on all aspects of policy and decisions
taken by the state, it became a legitimisation umbrella. In order to remain
in control of the only space left for them, the social public sphere, official
ulama glorified the state that guaranteed them such monopoly. They
promised the state acquiescent and subservient subjects, despite a
strong tradition calling for subservience only to God, expressed clearly in
tawhid, as explained in the undisputed message of Muhammad ibn Abd
Throughout the twentieth century, senior ulama belonged to the al-
Shaykh family and other well-known Najdi groups. As a commoner of a
humble origin, Sheikh Ibn Baz was an exception. Other non-Najdi Saudi
ulama entered the intellectual field together with other Arab and Muslim
interpreters of the tradition. A recent survey of duat (preachers) in
Riyadh lists sixty-nine sheikhs from various regions and tribal groups.
Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah al-Shaykh occupies the first position on
the list, followed by sheikhs belonging to known Najdi religious families
(for example al-Bassam, al-Barak, al-Awdah, al-Lohaydan, al-Obaykan,
al-Fawzan, al-Zamil) together with others who are newly recruited disci-
ples (al-Ghamdi, al-Qahtani, al-Asmari, al-Yami, al-Zahrani). The new
disciples belong to tribes in the west and south-west of the country,
historically outside Saudi–Wahhabi domination. The list is meant to
identify those sheikhs who are considered as authorities in Wahhabi reli-
gious discourse. Listing them in a Wahhabi website automatically grants
34 Contesting the Saudi State

them tazkiyya (an approval certificate). Visitors to the web page are
encouraged to invite these aima to give lectures in mosques, consult them
and attend their lectures in centres where they normally preach.38
Today, it is slightly inaccurate to claim that Wahhabiyya represents
Najdi discourse, because those who participate in its articulation are no
longer exclusively drawn from this region. As mentioned before, from the
very beginning Wahhabiyya was the religious discourse of the area south
and south west of Riyadh rather than Najd as a whole. However, despite
the hybridity of the scholars who are intellectually loyal to the
Wahhabiyya today and their geographical diversity, the tradition retained
some important core characteristics, reflecting its original message and

Consolidating the state: mystification of the world

Twentieth-century official Wahhabi scholars used three mechanisms to
consolidate the political realm. Hijra (migration), takfir (excommunica-
tion) and jihad (struggle in the way of God) are religious concepts that
were conducive to domesticating the population and ensuring total
control over the public sphere. It is ironic that these old concepts that con-
solidated the state are currently used to denounce it and even destroy it.

Hijra is a boundary-drawing mechanism that requires an individual to
migrate to the realm of the pious state, established by Wahhabi efforts: the
Saudi state.39 The tradition was invoked in the eighteenth century to dis-
tinguish between the realm created in central Arabia and other provinces
of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, in the nineteenth century the land that
fell into the hands of the invading Egyptian troops who landed on the
shores of the Arabian Peninsula was regarded as an unsuitable abode for
true Muslims, who were therefore required to emigrate to the land where
authentic Islam still prevailed.40 Finally, in the twentieth century, the
modern Saudi state was founded as a result of invoking the tradition of
hijra, which required true Muslims to leave not only their traditional land
but also way of life in order to migrate to the land of Islam, the
Saudi–Wahhabi realm.41 Abode in this land of Islam became compulsory,
while travelling to the land of non-Muslims – a wide category that
included not only Christians and Jews but also other Muslims – is forbid-
den. The fact that other Muslims were known to be part of ahl al-qibla
(people who face Mecca for prayer) did not suffice to make their territory
permissible as an abode for true Muslims. This distinction was based not
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 35

just on a physical migration but also on a moral one, that involved aban-
doning the realms of blasphemy, religious innovation and, ultimately,
misguidance. The migration includes prohibitions and restrictions on
travelling to such blasphemous areas in times of peace. This application
of the concept of migration was closely associated with the ulama of
Riyadh and its environs, who were most radical in their distinction
between the land of Muslims and that of non-Muslims. In pre-oil Arabia
such areas had no commercial interest. In other towns in central Arabia –
for example, Unayzah and Hayil – where there were more developed
commercial interests with the outside world, scholars were more lenient
in applying the prohibition on travel to the land of infidels. The commer-
cial interests of these two towns required such a moderate theological
With the growing number of Saudi students sent on government schol-
arships to study in the land of blasphemy, the West, Ibn Baz was asked for
a religious opinion regarding the permissibility of such behaviour. The
following dialogue is recorded in his famous collection of fatwas:
q: In recent years young men travel to the land of blasphemy to study, do you
think they need a special Committee to instruct them in good behaviour?
ib n baz: No doubt travelling to the land of blasphemy is a very dangerous
matter. Its negative consequences are enormous. I have issued opinions
warning against this danger. If there is no way of avoiding this travel, it is
better to send old men who have in-depth knowledge of their religion. Also it
is important to send with them pious people to watch them abroad.43
Ibn Baz saw great danger in sending the youth of the country to study in
the West. This also applied to those traders and entrepreneurs who
sought to establish commercial networks in distant non-Muslim lands.
He ruled that to avoid a great danger, the process must be under the
control of those who know religion.
But what is the ruling regarding inviting infidels and blasphemous
people into the abode of Muslims? What is Ibn Baz’s opinion regarding
the millions of foreign workers who have been a constant feature of Saudi
Arabia since the discovery of oil in the 1930s? These questions became
urgent as Saudi Arabia hosted more than 6 million foreign workers by the
end of the twentieth century and over 8 million foreigners in 2004. Ibn
Baz gave his opinion:
q: What is your opinion regarding institutions that import kafir labourers?
ibn baz: It is prohibited to import kafir labourers to the Arabian Peninsula
because the Prophet advised to ‘Remove the infidels from the Arabian
Peninsula’. He also said that no two religions should coexist in this land . . . We
drew the attention of wulat al-amr [rulers] to this important matter in various
media programmes and newspaper articles. The infidels are not meant to
36 Contesting the Saudi State

make the Arabian Peninsula their place of residence. Also it is prohibited to

give them nationality. They should not be allowed to practice the rituals of
their religion. It is also prohibited to import them as labourers. Muslim labour-
ers should be used instead. Wali al-amr can ask infidels to work here only in
those situations where a Muslim cannot be found to do the job. After they
perform this function, they should be deported to their country. This follows
the tradition of the Prophet who allowed Jews to stay in Kheybar because of a
need but Caliph Omar deported them when there was no need for them.44

As demonstrated by this opinion, Ibn Baz invokes two Prophetic tradi-

tions, one related to the obligation to remove infidels from the Arabian
Peninsula, and the second to the fact that no two religions should coexist
in this territory. A literalist interpretation of these Hadiths predisposes Ibn
Baz to rule out reliance on infidels for labour. He, however, goes further
than this. A Muslim should not initiate the act of greeting infidels during
social and informal encounters,45 but according to Ibn Baz, withholding
greetings is not enough; he goes as far as ordering Muslims to nourish
bagdha (hatred) rather than mawada (affection) in their hearts for infidels.
Ibn Baz allowed the ruler some freedom in applying the Prophetic tra-
dition. If special skills are required that only infidels possess, the ruler is
allowed to import them for a short time, after which he is obliged to expel
them. Ibn Baz’s uncompromising view on economic and personal rela-
tions with infidels is at odds with his extremely flexible position regarding
calling upon infidels for military assistance against fellow Muslims. His
famous fatwa justifying inviting American troops to Saudi Arabia to liber-
ate Kuwait from the army of Saddam – an infidel in his opinion – is a clear
case of political pragmatism. Again, Ibn Baz demonstrated with clarity
the position of official Wahhabiyya, which is radical in its judgement of
social matters but extremely accommodating of political decisions made
on the basis of expediency and necessity.46
To preserve the Saudi state, Wahhabi ulama stretched the limits of
Salafi theology; self-preservation, rather than the literal interpretation of
scripture, was the ultimate criterion. Official ulama confirmed political
decisions, yet in social matters they expressed an uncompromising and
coercive role, perhaps a substitute for loss of authority over rulers.
Violence in Saudi Arabia in the twenty-first century is the outcome of
contradictions in religious discourse. While an ordinary Muslim is not
meant to greet infidels in the streets, host them in his country as labourers
except if they are invited by the ruler and never travel to their lands unless
under supervision, he is allowed to fight behind their army generals in
the battlefield. Official Wahhabi scholars retained the social aspect of
al-bara (dissociation from infidels), which relates to personal relations
between Muslims and non-Muslims represented in nourishing hatred
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 37

and rejecting friendship, but they endorsed and even legitimised political
wala (subservience) to so-called infidels, exemplified by their total
silence over Saudi foreign policy, foreign military bases in the country and
other manifestations of Saudi alliances with the West. Again, Wahhabi
discourse embodied contradictions that freed the political sphere from
their jurisdiction while maintaining their control of the social.
The above-mentioned Prophetic traditions have become famous
slogans adopted by Saudi Jihadis in their struggle against so-called infi-
dels. After 11 September, and the outbreak of violence inside the country,
this Hadith tradition underwent a reinterpretation. As Jihadis waged war
under the banner of removing infidels from the Arabian Peninsula, in
2004 Sheikh al-Obaykan offered an interpretation that accommodates
infidels rather than denounces them. He offers five clarifications. First,
the land specified in Hadith refers only to the two holy mosques (Mecca
and Madina). Second, the verb ‘remove’ applies to infidels who have per-
manent places of worship – for example, churches. Third, the Hadith
addresses rulers rather than people, Fourth, infidels should be removed
but their honour and wealth should be protected while removing them.
And fifth, their removal is related to maslaha (interest). Al-Obaykan’s
interpretation implies that infidels in Saudi Arabia are muahadin, enjoy-
ing a contractual relationship guaranteed by the ruler and the subjects
that makes the shedding of their blood forbidden. This is one of the rein-
terpretations that official Wahhabi scholars are currently engaged in for-
mulating in response to outside pressure and local Jihadi violence.47

The second mechanism deployed in consolidating and expanding the
political realm was excommunication. The practice of takfir against those
whose Islam does not correspond to that defined by the state ulama not
only controlled social and religious ‘deviance’, as defined by Wahhabi
interpretation, but also expanded the political realm under the pretext of
correcting the blasphemy of others.
While there is extensive debate and documentation of Muslim opinions
regarding the status of non-Muslims and near consensus over the termi-
nology used to refer to them, depending on whether they are people of the
book or others,48 the labelling of other Muslims as kafir has always been
problematic in Islamic history. Excommunication of other Muslims is a
practice that draws the boundaries in between Muslims rather than divid-
ing Muslims from non-Muslims. In practice it amounts to symbolic vio-
lence against the ‘enemy within’ by drawing on religious discourse and
evidence, usually by an expert – a judge or religious scholar – in order to
38 Contesting the Saudi State

remove an insider from the community of the faithful. Historians of the

Islamic tradition emphasise that takfir was common in the small study
circles of religious scholars, especially in the medieval period. They agree
that it remained confined to a limited circle of scholars who accused each
other of blasphemy and heresy.49 This practice became problematic,
threatening internal dissent and precipitating chaos and discord. The his-
torical case of the Kharijites, who excommunicated both the Caliph Ali
and governor Muawiya, thus precipitating political chaos and dissent, is
viewed with fear and abhorrence by Muslims up to the present day.50 It is
also argued that when ‘mobs’, a reference to people with little or no knowl-
edge grounded in serious study of the Islamic tradition and jurisprudence,
participated in the definition and labelling of others as kafir, disaster was
bound to happen. Moreover, the intervention of political authority – for
example, the ruler and his manipulation of excommunication for purely
dynastic purposes such as the elimination of competitors and rebels – was
bound to endow this practice with new and dangerous dimensions. Many
early religious scholars warned against such intervention and foresaw its
potential detrimental consequences. Some scholars felt uncomfortable
with both mass excommunication (takfir al-umum) – for example, when
whole communities of Muslims are labelled kafir – and specific excommu-
nication (takfir al-muayan) – that is, labelling one individual as kafir.
Others considered failure to identify a kafir as an act of kufr (blasphemy),
thus making it incumbent on people of knowledge to identify a kafir. This
latter position tends to be dominant in Wahhabi teachings.
In extreme cases the act of removing the kafir from the realm of the
community is not only symbolic but real – for example, a death sentence
after being given the opportunity to repent. While excommunication
remains the prerogative of a small circle of religious experts and judges,
the punishment of the person accused of kufr is usually the responsibility
of political authority. The ruler is responsible for iqamat al-hadd (punish-
ment). Excommunication can eventually lead to action against a person
labelled a kafir, whose blood can be shed, wealth confiscated and mar-
riage annulled. In general, excommunication removes the individual from
the realm of the Muslim community.
Excommunicating Muslims as groups was a mechanism for state expan-
sion in the Wahhabi tradition. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab declared, ‘I
excommunicate the one who knows the religion of the Prophet, and then
he insults the religion, and forbids people to follow it, and becomes an
enemy of those who know religion. This is the one that I excommunicate.’51
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab refutes the accusation that he was excessive in excom-
municating whole communities. In response to a question about excom-
munication and violence, he explains that those who do not declare faith
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 39

and perform the remaining four pillars of Islam (Prayer, fast, alms, and
pilgrimage) are kafirs. He specifies four categories of kafir. First is one who
knows tawhid but does not act according to its principle. This is a kafir
whom we fight as a result of his blasphemy (nuqatiluhu bi kufrihi). Second
is one who knows tawhid but insults religion and prefers polytheists to
monotheists. Third is one who knows, loves, and follows tawhid, but hates
those who accept it. Fourth is one who knows tawhid but whose own people
(for example, family or local community) are polytheists; he supports them
against monotheists because he is fond of them and cannot leave them.52
In the Wahhabi tradition, nawaqidh al-Islam (factors that remove a
person from the realm of Islam) are polytheism; association with God;
failing to excommunicate polytheists; preferring another authority to that
of Islam; hating part of the Prophet’s message; ridiculing the Prophet’s
message; sorcery; assisting infidels against Muslims (under the concept of
al-wala wa l-bara); excluding some people from the rule of Islam; and
disrespecting Islam’s teachings. The violation of one of the above removes
the person from Islam, (kufr mukhrij min al-milla).53
However, it is well documented that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab
and his later disciples followed a well-known formula in addressing other
Muslims and calling upon them to become true Muslims by abandoning
their shirk (polytheism). In a letter to all Muslims, Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab says: ‘The polytheists of our time are more numerous than the
infidels at the time of the Prophet. They call upon angels, saints and pious
people asking for forgiveness . . . Muslims know that tawhid is worship-
ping God. This is the religion of the messengers starting with Noah and
the last one is Muhammad.’54 This is clear evidence of takfir al-umum,
general excommunication of other Muslims.
Twentieth-century Wahhabi letters to other Muslims often start with a
known formula. An example is a letter by Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Latif in 1918. The sheikh begins: ‘From Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif to
the people of Asir, Hijaz and Yemen, may God guide them to Islam’,
implying that they are not true Muslims. As for the people of Najd, ‘they
had been subjected to the work of Satan and they succumbed to his bad
ways’; for example:

They visited the tomb of Zayd ibn al-Khattab to ask for favours, their women were
immoral. When their husbands were absent they visited palm trees and other
trees, one of which was called Tarafiyya. They hugged the trees and asked favours.
In Deriyyah itself, before the dawa, there was a man called Taj who claimed
holiness. People came to him asking for favours . . . In Taif, the tomb of Ibn
Abbas was a place where associationist practices were performed, In Madina, the
same associationist practices prevailed. In Egypt, paganism and associationist
traditions prevailed. Also in Yemen, Sanaa, Hadramawt, Aleppo, Damascus,
40 Contesting the Saudi State

Mosul, the land of the Kurds, and Mashhad, In general in all these lands clear kufr
was demonstrated.55
In 1918 Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif wrote a letter describing his
horror over the blasphemy he witnessed in the Hijaz:
Our rightful Imam, the glorious most respected, the one who has happiness and
authority Abdulaziz ibn Abdulrahman ibn Saud, may God elevate him and keep
him for Muslims to teach what God instructed his slaves. We have come back
from the land of Hijaz and we have seen how Satan lived in this land among its
people. Your people abstained from seeing light and guidance. They have fallen
into a dangerous ignorance. They are on the verge of a burning hell. They worship
tombs and trees. They venerate dead saints. This is the religion of the people of
the first age of ignorance to whom the Prophet was sent.56
It is certain that the frequency of excommunication fluctuated according
to the requirements of specific historical and political contexts rather than
theological concerns. The above letter demonises Hijazis and reprimands
them for their polytheism, certainly a justification for attacking them in
the name of Islam and correcting their so-called Satanic religious prac-
tices. Although the practice of labelling other groups of Muslims – for
example, Shiis, Sufis, Ismailis and even other Sunni Muslims – as
mushrikun (polytheists) or mubdiun (innovators) continued throughout
the twentieth century, specific individuals within these communities were
rarely branded as such. Throughout the second half of the twentieth
century, the practice of excommunicating specific individuals was more
or less under control, for obvious reasons.
There were isolated occasions whereby a religious scholar issued an
opinion describing someone as mulhid (atheist) and, by implication, a
kafir. Scholars who applied such labels to an individual – especially
among those called ilmaniyyun (secularists) – engaged in the controver-
sial and dangerous practice of takfir al-muayan, the excommunication of
specific individuals. Saudi writers who are considered to transgress and
use language deemed offensive against religion are often targets of the
practice of takfir: for example, Abdullah al-Qasimi, Ghazi al-Qusaybi
and Turki al-Hamad. Abdullah al-Qasimi (1907–96) moved from
Wahhabiyya to atheism, and was excommunicated as a result. According
to his biographer, al-Qasimi lived in Cairo, possibly under the patronage
of a Saudi prince, until his death.57 Princes often provided refuge for
excommunicated persons. King Abdullah (2005–) took the novelist
Turki al-Hamad under his patronage although he was labelled kafir. In
2006 al-Hamad declared that King Abdullah offered him his pen as a
gift. Religious scholars who offer alternative religious interpretations or
question the premises of the Wahhabi tradition can also be subject to the
takfir ruling – for example, the Sufi sheikh Muhammad Ulwi al-Maliki
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 41

(d. 2004), regarded by the Committee of Senior Ulama as dhal (one who
has gone astray), and described as belonging to the religion of blasphemy
(millat al-kufr).58 Sheikh al-Maliki was suspended from preaching and
teaching in the Hijaz. Another sheikh who challenged Wahhabi interpre-
tations, Hasan Farhan al-Maliki, discussed later in this book, was also
subjected to a similar ruling. However, punishment – usually a death sen-
tence after the offer of repentance – rarely followed such judgments. The
political authorities either ignored such rulings or offered protection to
those labelled blasphemous by their own religious institution, another
manifestation of the contradiction between Saudi religious rhetoric and
reality. The determining factor was political expediency rather than reli-
gious opinion, and the Saudi royal family and the religious establishment
were accomplices in enforcing control. The damage to individuals and
their reputation was, however, great. Ordinary Saudis had to navigate a
difficult terrain of contradictions between religious doctrine and political
Saudi religious scholars easily practised takfir against other Arab
leaders, such as Nasser, Qadafi and Saddam, as well as Khomeini, all of
whom challenged Saudi royal politics. Sheikh Ibn Baz clearly stated that
‘Saddam is kafir, even though he says there is no God but Allah, and even
though he prays and fasts. As long as he does not abandon his Bathist
atheism and repents, he will remain a kafir.’59 Such opinions were
extremely important for the political leadership as it embarked on a war
to liberate Kuwait from Saddam’s army.
Throughout the history of the present Saudi state no ruler has ever
been labelled kafir. Most Wahhabi ulama would accept a usurper
because they believed in the legitimacy of seizing power by force: ‘a tyran-
nical sultan was better than perpetual strife’.60 In the twentieth century,
the legitimacy of Ibn Saud was questioned by the Ikhwan in 1927. While
the Ikhwan did not practise takfir al-muayan against Ibn Saud, they
clearly considered some of his actions, especially his alliance with and
subservience to Britain, as acts of kufr.61 The same position was adopted
by Juhayman al-Otaybi during his rebellion in the Holy Mosque in 1979
as he demonstrated in his rasail the blasphemous practices of the Saudi
regime.62 More recently, a similar ruling was passed on the Saudi regime
with the publication of al-Kawashif al-jalliyya fi kufr al-dawla al-saudiyya
(Clear Evidence of the Blasphemy of the Saudi Regime). While the
author, known as Abu al-Bara al-Najdi (Asim al-Barqawi al-Maqdisi),
was not Saudi, the book draws heavily on aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya.63
Two other books by Saudi dissidents drew similar conclusions relating to
the blasphemous nature of the regime while refraining from naming
individuals within it as kafir.64
42 Contesting the Saudi State

The history of excommunication entered a new phase. Young ulama

and political activists whose writings indirectly implied that the Saudi
regime itself is blasphemous cited the practice of association with unbe-
lievers against believers and al-hukum bi ghayr ma anzala allah (rule which
does not comply with God’s revealed message). Western-style banking is
often cited as an example of violating the revealed message. In such dissi-
dent literature not identifying a kafir is considered kufr in itself, a typical
Wahhabi position.
State Wahhabiyya refrained from excessive application of takfir against
specific individuals inside Saudi Arabia. Even when religious scholars
issued opinions in which they excommunicated a specific person, the state
often ignored them. However, the social impact of such opinions remained
extremely important and the consequences for the accused were grave.
Wahhbai discourse stretched the limits when excommunicating whole
communities of other Muslims or other Muslim leaders who challenged
Saudi authority in the Arab world. Excommunication remained one of the
most controversial issues debated between Wahhabi scholars and their
opponents. While some of their opponents accepted their pure monothe-
ism and other matters related to religious practice and worship, they chal-
lenged the Wahhabi interpretation of excommunication. With the strong
emphasis on total obedience to the ruler, excommunicating him becomes
the only mechanism justifying armed rebellion.

The third mechanism consolidating the state was jihad, the ‘struggle in
the way of God’. In Wahhabi interpretations, jihad was defined and exe-
cuted in several ways, violence being only one of them.65 Armed jihad
under the banner of the ruler is considered an aspect of obeying him.
While most Wahhabi scholars believed in peaceful dawa, they privileged
jihad wars against a whole range of so-called infidels, a category that
included several Muslim groups, nationalities and sects. While the posi-
tion of the founder of Wahhabiyya on jihad is well documented,66 it is
important to focus on how the duty of jihad was articulated by twentieth-
century official Wahhabi scholars.
In contrast with the antagonistic attitude towards other Muslims, who
were regarded as worse than the infidels of Quraysh during the times of
the Prophet, official Wahhabiyya not only cooperated with but also
accommodated Christians, who came to Arabia with the approval of the
ruler. For example, Wahhabi scholars who surrounded Ibn Saud in
Riyadh early in the twentieth century had no qualms about the British
officer Shakespear fighting side by side with Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan troops,
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 43

who played an important role in consolidating his rule under the banner
of enforcing monotheism. Shakespear died in battle while he was in Ibn
Saud’s military camp in 1916.67 In the 1920s jihad against other
Muslims – for example, the people of Qasim and Hail – was fought with
subsidies that clearly came from the purse of so-called infidels: the
British government.68 When it became clear to the Ikhwan that their
ruler, the rightful Imam to whom they swore allegiance, was obviously
operating within the British sphere of influence, they rebelled against
him, an incident that threatened to undermine the newly created realm.
Their rebellion was not, however, solely about relations with infidels. It
was primarily a rebellion against their marginalisation after they secured
the ream for Ibn Saud. The Ikhwan rebellion was motivated by worldly
matters and power sharing. However, in the rhetoric of the rebels, it was
above all a protest against the violation of one of the ten principles that
remove a Muslim from Islam: al-wala wa l-bara (association with
Muslims and dissociation from infidels), a principle at the heart of
Jihadi struggle in the twenty-first century. While the rebellion failed to
achieve its objectives, it nevertheless created a schism within the
Wahhabi religious community that has not yet been repaired, namely
the division between those pragmatic Wahhabis who were close to polit-
ical authority in Riyadh and those who maintained their autonomy and
allegiance to God rather than worldly authority. Unfortunately, there is
no elaborate historiography of the religious scholars who sided with the
Ikhwan rebels, a function of the triumph of the state in eliminating their
rebellion.69 Although the Ikhwan fighters were defeated by 1930, the
religious heritage that justified their rebellion remained a dormant trend
within Wahhabiyya. The ulama who sympathised with the Ikhwan
rebels in their hearts remained marginal; nevertheless, their interpreta-
tions continued to erupt in the public sphere against a background of
strict government control and co-optation. Contemporary Jihadi
Sheikh Nasir al-Fahad, whose work on the blasphemy of assisting
Americans in their wars against Muslims will be discussed later in this
book, is but one young religious scholar whose intellectual genealogy
includes important figures among aimat al-dawa al- najdiyya, from
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab to Safar al-Hawali.
After the Second World War, Saudi Arabia moved from the British
sphere of influence to that of the United States. Official Wahhabiyya
remained silent on the political alliance with the USA and its various
phases throughout the twentieth century. Both oil wealth and the institu-
tionalisation of religious discourse proved to be influential weapons
against dissenting voices within the Wahhabi tradition. However, neither
was totally successful.
44 Contesting the Saudi State

On one occasion, before he became grand mufti, Sheikh Ibn Baz criti-
cised the influx of what he called the infidels, who in the 1940s were
mainly American engineers working on agricultural projects in al-Kharj,
where he was judge. Ibn Baz was summoned to the court of Ibn Saud,
where he was told not to interfere in such matters.70 However, Ibn Baz
remained a strong believer in keeping the Arabian Peninsula free of infi-
dels and other religious traditions, in respect for the Hadith cited earlier.
Nevertheless, he expressed great tolerance for ‘infidel’ soldiers defending
the realm in his fatwa justifying the invitation of foreign troops to liberate
Kuwait in 1990–1. This controversial fatwa has been subject to scrutiny
in several studies, but most agree that those who produced it ‘were dis-
charging an odious duty wanted by none. But discharge it they did. After
all, the ulama were in the business of defending the realm and they were
not going to repeat the mistakes of yore where ideological purity came at
the expense of practical survival.’71
Official Wahhabi discourse denounced infidels without specifying the
USA, even in the explosive context of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.
Since 11 September, mosque imams have been prohibited from mention-
ing the USA by name in their supplication during Friday sermons, which
traditionally include a denunciation of the ‘enemies of Islam’ and a call
for the victory of Muslims. In 2001 the war on Afghanistan by the USA
was conducted without the official Wahhabiyya being able to denounce it
as an attack on Muslims. Only dissident Wahhabi ulama denounced the
war, and described it as a new Crusade.72 The Saudi regime was one of
the first to recognise the Taliban state, but was also one of the first to end
diplomatic relations with the Taliban, just before the American invasion
took place.
Since the invasion of Iraq by US troops in 2003, official religious schol-
ars have denounced resistance in Iraq as an illegitimate war, refusing to
call it jihad. Despite the silence of the religious establishment on the issue,
Chief Justice Sheikh Salih al-Lohaydan was caught on tape preaching to a
Saudi audience that the situation in Iraq requires jihad: ‘If someone
knows that he is capable of entering Iraq in order to join the fight, and if
his intention is to raise up the word of God, then he is free to do so.’73
The release of this tape coincided with Crown Prince Abdullah’s visit
to Crawford, Texas in April 2005. It was obvious that this tape was meant
to embarrass the Saudi leadership at a time when Saudi–US relations had
suffered a setback after 11 September. Sheikh al-Lohaydan was quick to
issue a letter clarifying his position regarding violence in Iraq, which he
refused to describe as jihad.74 He withdrew his early enthusiasm for jihad
in Iraq, which was clearly represented in the smuggled tape. He attributed
the release of the tape to what he called the ‘enemies of Islam’, the
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 45

Washington-based, Shii-run Saudi Institute, an organisation that claims

to defend democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia.75 While al-
Lohaydan denounced the Saudi Shiis as being behind the tape, he con-
demned the killing of members of Iraqi Shii National Guard at the hands
of the Iraqi resistance. Al-Lohaydan’s clarification reflected the political
pressures that were exerted on the Wahhabi establishment, especially
after clear evidence suggesting the participation of young Saudis in the
fighting in Iraq, which increased in 2004–5.
It is ironic that the call for jihad (with the tongue, heart and sword) was
historically launched against fellow Muslims whose Islam was seen as
corrupt or misguided, a situation that puts such Muslims in a category
worse than the polytheists of Quraysh. It is a historical fact that most
Wahhabi violence has targeted other Muslims rather than non-Muslims.
This is not surprising, given that Wahhabi discourse continued to
denounce Muslims whose Islam deviated from the true path as ahl al-
dhalal (those who have gone astray). Punishing errant Muslims should be
harsher, according to Wahhabi interpretations. And resisting foreign
occupation – for example, in Afghanistan and Iraq – is regarded by official
Wahhabi scholars as illegitimate violence.
Hijra, takfir and jihad were three mechanisms used not only to enforce
the boundaries of the pious state but also to ensure total obedience to
rulers. While hijra advocated migration to the pious realm, takfir encour-
aged expulsion from it. Jihad, both peaceful and violent, rendered life a
perpetual struggle in the way of God, but in reality it was transformed
into a political strategy applied only to enhance the authority of the rulers.
The three concepts were emptied of their religious meaning and turned
into political weapons to consolidate the realm and its moral guardians,
the ulama. Official Wahhabi ulama turned their backs on the scholar
who had served as their role model, Taqi al-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyya
(1263–1328), who is described as the model of the critic-scholar. In
matters political, Wahhabi ulama followed the model of realist Mamluk
scholar Badr al-Din ibn Jamaa (1241–1333), who preached ‘obedience
to any lawfully constituted authority’. 76

Political innovations
In the process of establishing a state, Wahhabiyya confirmed several politi-
cal innovations that have accompanied the development of Islamic history
and civilisation. Wahhabiyya is described as a religious revivalist move-
ment, but it certainly did not offer any political vision or theory different
from those already in place within the Sunni tradition. In a desperate
attempt to safeguard itself against annihilation of the religious call,
46 Contesting the Saudi State

marginalisation of the Najdi class of ulama and the disintegration of the

Saudi realm, Wahhabiyya supported and defended, with text and practice,
two of the most controversial but dominant political innovations in
Islamic history: hereditary rule and absolute obedience to political author-
ity. It eventually deprived the Muslim community of its right to have a say
in political matters. The only legitimate criticism of political authority was
initiated in secrecy, between scholars and rulers: the latter are not in
theory under any obligation to act according to the advice of the former.
During an encounter between Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and
Muhammad ibn Saud in 1744, the former confirmed the latter in the
position of imama (leadership of the Muslim state), and confirmed his
descendants in their role as future Imams. It is reported that in Deriyyah
around 1744 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab said to Muhammad Ibn
Saud: ‘The people of Najd are now ignorant polytheists, divided and
diverse. They fight each other. I hope you will be the Imam around whom
Muslims can gather and your children after you become successive
imams. The Imam [Ibn Saud] welcomed him and gave him shelter.’77
Wahhabiyya confirmed two mechanisms for the foundation of political
power: istila (seizing power by force), and taiyyin (the appointment of a
successor by the current ruler (hereditary rule), while paying lip service to
the third principle: shura (consultation).78 The oath of allegiance (baya),
normally given by both a loosely defined group called ahl al-hall wa l-aqd
(‘the people who tie and loose’) and the raiyya (subjects) became a dra-
matic ritual of obedience, and even more so with the advent of new com-
munication technology.79 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab decreed that it
is compulsory to ‘listen to and obey the ruler, even if he is a despot (jair)
and debauched (fasiq), as long as he does not order people to disobey
God. People should gather around the one who assumes the caliphate
and accept him. If he got the caliphate with his sword, he should be
obeyed. Rebellion against a usurper is forbidden.’80 As a Salafi movement
that draws on the tradition of the pious ancestors, Wahhabiyya did not
give sufficient significance to the succession of the first caliph, which
other contemporary Salafis consider as the first shura experience in Islam.
This sets the Wahhabi movement apart from other Salafi trends, espe-
cially contemporary variants that question the principle of total obedi-
ence to rulers and hereditary rule. Wahhabiyya is also different from the
nineteenth-century modernist Salafiyya, which insisted on giving the
umma an important role in the decision-making process.81
While twentieth-century Wahhabi scholars were constantly preoccu-
pied with questions of ritual performance, tomb-visiting, intercession and
other so-called polytheist innovations, they failed to produce a single trea-
tise on the nature of the Islamic state and political authority. This was
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 47

partly because they seriously believed in the Islamic nature of the state
they had created, and then felt that there was no need to provide religious
theorising for something that already existed, and partly because of the
sensitivity of political theorising in Saudi Arabia, even that originating in
religious circles. Ignoring Islamic political thought has been a feature of
Wahhabiyya since its inception.82 As a revivalist movement similar to other
eighteenth-century movements, it was concerned above all with religious
rather than political reform. Its most famous scholars were fuqaha
(jurists) and qadis (judges) rather than political ideologues. Its low-
ranking preachers were mutawaa, volunteers who disciplined bodies and
souls even though they had very little literacy and knowledge of their own
religious sources. Historically, the majority of the mutawaa were hafadhat
Quran, people who memorised the Quran or sections of it and had no
other religious training.83 According to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s
biographer, the sheikh did not concern himself with writing treatises dis-
cussing the nature of the Islamic imama (leadership of the Muslim state).84
The hakim (ruler) and his characteristics are mentioned in passing. The
ruler is also mentioned in the context of elaborating on taghut, a word liter-
ally meaning ‘idols’ but often translated as ‘despot’, with an obvious asso-
ciation with oppression, tughyan. In discussing the five types of taghut, Ibn
Abd al-Wahhab lists the following categories: first, Satan, who calls people
to worship those other than God; second, the despotic ruler who changes
God’s law; third, the ruler who does not govern in accordance with the
revealed message of God; fourth, the one who claims knowledge of the
unknown; and fifth, the one who accepts worship instead of God.
Most Wahhabi scholars do not go beyond the Sunni tradition, specify-
ing that the ruler should be a free Muslim male. He should also be just,
knowledgeable of sharia and capable of public administration.85 If such
characteristics are present in a person from Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe,
then he has priority over others; otherwise the position is open to all
Muslims. Some scholars insist that Arab descent is preferred. The ruler is
appointed as a result of the consensus of ahl al-hall wa l-aqd, a reference
to people of knowledge, as well as other important members of society.
The current ruler can also appoint a successor, or a future ruler can seize
power by force. In all situations, he must be obeyed.
One can only speculate on why Wahhabi discourse fell short of produc-
ing a political treatise that deals with urgent matters related to the Islamic
polity. Perhaps its early and later advocates were unprepared for such
an intellectual luxury in a context characterised by their geographical
and social marginality in the Muslim world.86 Perhaps Wahhabi schol-
ars regarded their movement as too all-encompassing and holistic to be
concerned with a limited area such as state and polity. However, it is clear
48 Contesting the Saudi State

that Wahhabi religio-political discourse failed to rise above its own social
and environmental context. In political matters, Wahhabi scholars con-
firmed social rather than religious practices. Hereditary rule was one such
practice that dominated political life among the sedentary population of
the region where Wahhabiyya originated.87 In political matters,
Wahhabiyya confirmed al-mawruth al-ijtimai (inherited social tradition)
rather than challenging it. Another reason relates to Wahhabi suspicion of
the masses, the umma, who are believed to degenerate easily into religious
laxity and blasphemy. The umma can in no way be given a say in impor-
tant matters such as politics. Although Wahhabi scholars reiterate the tra-
ditional formula that the umma does not consent to wrong decisions (la
tajtami al-umma ala dhalal), in practice they took it for granted that the
umma is potentially wrong. In their political preaching Wahhabi scholars
continued to invoke a group that remains not so well defined, ‘those who
tie and loose’, a significant unelected body in which they must be the
dominant majority to correct al-dhalal (debauchery).
It is clear from the copious body of Wahhabi literature devoted to
matters related to creed and worship that the movement’s stated objective
remained the purification and renewal of faith through the reform of reli-
gious practices. This preoccupation was conducive to the political hege-
mony of the state. Yet Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab also implemented
a vigorous application of the sharia, which was very much dependent on
the establishment of a pious state.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s understanding of the Islamic state was limited to
applying sharia and fighting religious innovation, without paying atten-
tion to the most important pillar in state formation – the principle by
which a ruler is chosen, made accountable and changed if transgression
from the true path is apparent. In fact, Wahhabi discourse rules out the
possibility of the umma actively changing the ruler. While any violent
rebellion is abhorred and prohibited, unless it is initiated by advocates of
the movement, there is room only for an unbinding advice, with the hope
that this would change any behaviour or policy not in accordance with the
revealed message. In the Wahhabi worldview, the rightful ruler is the one
who calls for and leads prayer (uqim al-salah). Only if such a ruler prohibits
the performance of prayer can Muslims contemplate a hypothetical rebel-
lion, which, as far as Islamic history is concerned, is without precedent.
Even when Muslim territories fell under foreign and non-Muslim rulers, it
was rare that Muslims were not allowed to perform communal prayer.
Wahhabi perception of political issues had always been determined by a
reiteration of selected medieval Muslim treatises that highlighted acquies-
cence and submission. While most Wahhabis revere the medieval jurists
Sheikh Ahmad ibn Hanbal and Ahmad ibn Taymiyya, it is ironic that they
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 49

have not followed their footsteps in some political matters. In politics,

Wahhabi scholars overlooked revealed religious discourse, al-munazal
(i.e. in the Quran), in favour of a politically subservient approach that
endorsed constructed and interpreted religious discourse, al-muawal,
which belonged to a later generation of Sunni ulama.88
In Wahhabi discourse, the survival of Muslim society is dependent on
the strength of the state. Without the call, the state loses its raison dêtre, and
without the state the call is weakened and risks being undermined by the
return of the forces of misguided Islam and the confounding of the permis-
sible and prohibited. Consequently, the Islamised person and umma are
constantly at risk of regressing to the status quo ante, the age of ignorance, in
terms of personal piety, worship and societal relations. The concept of
jahiliyya (the age of ignorance) was an integral part of Wahhabi discourse
from the eighteenth century. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab wrote a book
that deals with aspects of the so-called ignorant society. The age of igno-
rance was a label used to describe the population of Arabia at the time of
the call of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. In Masail al-jahiliyya, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab
described a series of beliefs and practices associated with the age of igno-
rance, which prevailed before the call of the Prophet. The message was
clear: the first age of ignorance was being repeated in Arabia in Ibn Abd al-
Wahhab’s time. Ibn Abd al-Wahhab described the population of his time as
being ‘worse than the kafirs of Quraysh, who were known to ‘disobey wali
al amr [the ruler]’. Among the people of ignorance, ‘refusing to obey the
ruler is a virtue, some made this practice a religion. The Prophet ordered
them to be patient when confronted with the repression of rulers. He
ordered them to listen to such a ruler, obey him, and advise him.’89
Wahhabi discourse preceded modern twentieth-century Islamist theo-
risations of the concept of the age of ignorance, the most famous of which
was that of Egyptian Muhammad Qutb.90 In Wahhabiyya, the personal,
social and political were interrelated in a web that required the control of
the person and society by the state and religious scholars. The question of
obeying both the state and the ulama is therefore crucial. Theorising obe-
dience is perhaps the only exception to the rule in the Wahhabi tradition
–its general neglect of theorising politics, as discussed earlier.
In the Wahhabi worldview, three levels of obedience have equal status:
obedience to God; obedience to the Prophet; and obedience to those
charged with authority, defined as the princes (umara) and the people of
knowledge (ulama). In a lecture delivered at the Great Mosque in
Riyadh, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Baz interpreted an important
Quranic verse cited above: ‘O ye who believe Obey Allah, and obey the
Messenger, and those charged with authority among you.’91 The title of
the lecture was ‘Explaining the Rights of Those Charged with Authority’.
50 Contesting the Saudi State

He stated that the route to happiness and guidance is obedience to God,

the Messenger and those charged with authority. Obeying those in
authority follows on from fulfilling the obligation to obey God and the
messenger. He defined those charged with authority as the umara and
ulama. Obedience must be to maruf (that which is known in sharia); no
obedience is permitted to masiyya (sins).92 In this interpretation, Ibn Baz
follows a well-established tradition. Early Wahhabi scholars confirmed
‘that a Muslim should obey the rightful imam regardless of whether he is
fajir [despotic], or fasiq [debauched], offer him zakat, perform jihad under
his banner, give him booty after battle, and never rebel against him using
the sword. A final word, obey him until God finds you a way out. Any
rebellious person is an innovator and a rejectionist who abandons the
community, threatening dissent. A final advice is given to the true
Muslim. Hold yourself during dissent because it is a prophetic tradi-
tion.’93 Moreover, the prohibition of violent rebellion is extended to
include public criticism of the ruler.
Although Ibn Baz’s interpretation of the Quranic verse on obedience to
rulers is the one adopted by the Saudi–Wahhabi religious establishment,
it is not the only interpretation possible, nor is it the only one acceptable
to all Sunni scholars. According to one Salafi source, Ibn Baz’s interpreta-
tion of the Quranic verse overlooks the absence of the verb obey, atiu,
when the text refers to the third element in the chain of obedience, uli al-
amr (those charged with authority). The sura orders Muslims to obey
God, and obey the Prophet, repeating the verb ‘obey’. However, obeying
rulers is added using the letter waw (‘and’) in Arabic. Some interpreters
of the text argue that obeying the leader cannot be placed on equal
footing as obeying God and his Prophet, and that this is demonstrated by
the absence of the verb ‘obey’ before the order to include uli al-amr in the
sura.94 With the outbreak of violence and calls to disobey a ruler who fails
to demonstrate his Islamic credentials and pursue an Islamic policy, Ibn
Baz’s interpretation of obedience to the ruler remains an important
weapon against dissidence and rebellion. Obedience is a constant theme
that dominates religious programmes. Rebellion encompasses a wide
range of acts in official Wahhabi discourse. At one end stands violence
(khuruj bi l-sayf ), while at the other, writing an article critical of the
regime, sending an informative fax or advising the ruler in public are
glossed as acts of khuruj ala wali al-amr (rebellion against the ruler).
Recently, actions such as expressing an alternative political vision or
signing a petition calling for reform have been defined as khuruj ala wali
al-amr, according to Wahhabi judges.95
The interpretation of the Quranic verse relating to obeying those
charged with authority, now considered part and parcel of obeying God
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 51

and his Prophet, automatically outlaws armed rebellion against rulers,

except in very limited circumstances. Most twentieth-century Wahhabi
scholars insist that rebellion can be sanctioned in certain limited situa-
tions, but in practice they refrain from clarifying the conditions that allow
such rebellion to take place without violating creed and faith. If the ruler
displays kufr bawwah (obvious blasphemy), for example forbidding the
performance of public prayers in mosques, the question of whether
armed rebellion may or may not be justified is left unanswered, although
hypothetically forbidding prayer is an act of blasphemy that justifies
armed rebellion.
Responding to a question regarding whether a ruler who issues new
secular laws deserves to be reprimanded or even disobeyed, Sheikh Ibn Baz
replied that if new laws do not contradict sharia, it is permissible for the
ruler to do so, as there might be good for Muslims behind such new legisla-
tion. However, if legislation contradicts or replaces sharia, this is not per-
missible. He gives the example of suspending punishment for acts such as
fornication, alcohol consumption and theft. If the ruler suspends sharia in
such cases, he is regarded as kafir (blasphemous). How do Muslims deal
with a ruler who suspends sharia or enacts legislation that contradicts it?
Ibn Baz confirms that good Muslims should obey such a ruler in maruf
(that which is known in sharia) and not in masiyya (sin), until God
changes him (ubadilu hu allah).96 Note that Ibn Baz does not contem-
plate confronting the ruler even if he suspends divine law or introduces leg-
islation that does not conform to sharia. He emphasises obedience to such
a ruler until God decides to replace him or repudiate his actions, thus
ruling out the possibility of the community taking any active political posi-
tion. In this official Wahhabi political worldview, political activism is khuruj
ala al-hakim, an abhorred rebellion that leads to chaos and discord, thus
threatening religion. A good Muslim should wait for God to act in this par-
ticular situation, a position that represents the views of some but not all
Sunni scholars. This interpretation is conducive to the rule of sultans and
hereditary office, and historically such interpretations flourished in royal
courts. Ibn Baz is a later addition to the chain of religious noblesse détat.
While not distinguishing between various forms of armed rebellion and
peaceful criticism, in general official Wahhabi scholars confuse political
rebellion (khuruj siyasi) with religious rebellion that challenges creed
(khuruj aqaidi).97 The first type is a rebellion against worldly power,
and its permissibility is subject to debate among Muslim scholars, whereas
the second is a rebellion against the divine message, where there is a near-
consensus among scholars that it is forbidden. This confusion among
official Wahhabi scholars regarding khuruj siyasi contributes to the mystifi-
cation of politics, thus granting sanctity to those charged with worldly
52 Contesting the Saudi State

authority, for example the umara, and those in charge of interpreting the
divine message, the ulama. Peaceful political activism, passive resistance
and armed rebellion are confused and rendered prohibited behaviour
punishable by God and state. Under the patronage of the umara, Wahhabi
ulama sealed the fate of political activism, both armed and peaceful, by
describing it as sinful behaviour that challenges creed (al-aqida).
The overwhelming importance of submission to the ruler, once such
submission was equated with submission to God and the Prophet,
silenced any questioning of the role of those in power or criticism of their
policies. In its extreme manifestation, this theological position encour-
aged total acquiescence and discouraged even the mildest public criticism
of those charged with authority. Open criticism or even evaluation of the
role of the ruler is confused with al-sabb (insult), an unforgivable great
munkar, an evil calling for evil. Having established the obligation to obey
the rulers and people of knowledge, Sheikh Ibn Baz gave a religious
opinion regarding those who ‘insult the umara and ulama’.98 The sub-
jects (al-raiyya) are under obligation to praise the ruler rather than criti-
cise him, and to applaud his deeds rather than expose his faults. In the
same interview, Sheikh Ibn Baz was asked whether the ‘word’ (al-kalima),
implying public advice using the press for example, influences the
country’s security, especially that which comes by fax from outside and is
issued by those ‘who bear grudges against the land and its people of
authority’. Sheikh Ibn Baz described this kind of word as the worst evil,
which must be avoided.99 The sanctity of the umara that Ibn Baz pro-
motes is shared by the ulama, mainly those tied through state institutions
to the ruling group. Criticising them amounts to insulting them.
A contemporary popular version of the emphasis on subservience to
the ruler continues to appear in Saudi-approved internet discussion
boards. Sheikhs post articles and treatises on how to deal with rulers
according to the Islamic tradition, drawing on a style that invokes the
words of God (Quranic verses), Hadith and the sayings of a long list of
pious ulama, all arguing that it is incumbent upon a Muslim to obey the
ruler. In one article, Sheikh Osama al-Otaybi cites three sources to
authenticate the obligation to obey by grounding it in solid Islamic Salafi
sources. The message targets the ‘young’ who are in his opinion confused
about what is expected of them. He lists several obligations that a Muslim
should respect in relation with the ruler. A Muslim is under the obligation
to give the ruler the oath of allegiance; listen and obey; respect him; ask
God to protect him and refrain from asking God to harm him; pray
behind him; give him zakat; perform pilgrimage and jihad with him;
advise him in secrecy not in public; abstain from insulting him; remain
within the consensus of the community; and never rebel against him, even
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 53

with the word. Failure to do so consigns a person to the realm of the pro-
hibited. Again and again official Wahhabis confuse religious and political
rebellions. They also confuse peaceful resistance with armed rebellion.
Such treatises always end with a clear message. Al-Otaybi concludes his
message to the youth of the country:
It is clear that the rulers of the Saudi state must be given the oath of allegiance.
This is an obligation. The people who tie and loose have given the king the baya;
therefore, all Saudis are under the obligation to give it. The rulers of the Saudi
state must be respected. You must supplicate asking God to protect them. You
must pray behind them and pay them zakat. You must perform the pilgrimage
and jihad with them. You must advise them secretly not in public. You must not
gossip about them. You must not insult them and show their sins. It is forbidden
to rebel against them. You must not help those who rebel against them even with
the word. I ask God to protect them and guide them to all good for the country
and the people.100

If ever the ulama want to express reservations on policy and policy

makers, such expression must follow an acceptable and legitimate
formula. Advising the ruler (nasiha), writing to him (mukataba) and alert-
ing him (tanbih) must be performed in secrecy, initially taking the form of
‘congratulating’ and ‘praising’ him for his good behaviour, and mildly
encouraging him to reconsider matters relating to policy. All this should
be done away from the gaze of the masses or the press for fear of under-
mining the stature of the ruler. Sheikh Ibn Baz abhors the idea that the
ruler’s uyub (faults or shameful behaviour) should be discussed using a
public platform such as mosque minarets or transmitted by faxes to the
public. Later official scholars emphasised that resorting to the media to
criticise the umara and ulama is also forbidden, a clear reference to Saudi
opposition radio stations al-Islah and al-Tajdid, which broadcast from
London in 2003. Alternative views on the form and substance of advice to
rulers insist that secret advice is suitable only when masiyya (sin) is secre-
tive. However, when sins are public, they deserve a public response from
the Muslim community. Furthermore, in the absence of legitimate chan-
nels and institutions for the delivery of advice, the umma must express
criticism in the public sphere.
Such uncompromising insistence on total submission to political
authority consolidated the powers of the state and those who grew in
its shadow, the ulama. The emphasis on total obedience neutralises
any political activism that might challenge the leadership, and has
serious political consequences. Saudi dissidents who objected to the ruler
or aspects of his behaviour have resorted to takfir (excommunication)
of the ruler in order to justify their disobedience. Disobedience
becomes permissible only in a situation where the ruler is labelled kafir
54 Contesting the Saudi State

(blasphemous). Wahhabi dissidence in 1927, 1979 and the 1990s was

justified on the basis of the ruler displaying al-kufr al-bawwah (clear blas-
phemy). Jihadi discourse in the twenty-first century is entirely grounded
in a theological position that allows dissidence and even armed struggle
against a ‘blasphemous’ ruler. In the absence of other means of expressing
difference, criticism or disagreement with the ruler, excommunicating
him becomes the only possible mechanism; violence becomes the only
means of changing the situation.
Having nurtured political acquiescence and promised divine punish-
ment for those who disobey the ruler, Wahhabiyya itself thrived on state-
sponsored modernisation and oil wealth. It was propagated and enforced
not only in mosques, scholars’ study circles and pious shopkeepers’
private majlis, but also in ultra-modern university lecture halls, interna-
tional conferences, pan-Islamic organisations and, since the 1990s, inter-
net websites and satellite television.
In summary, official Wahhabi religio-political discourse was charac-
terised by a number of principles. These included accepting the legiti-
macy of the ruler regardless of how he seized power; denial of the umma’s
political participation, as it is innately wrong; granting the ruler unlimited
powers in politics; allowing various powerful rulers to contest power
without interference from the community; refusal to distinguish between
armed rebellion and political change by peaceful means; confirmation of
the permissibility of giving secret, non-binding advice to rulers; and
neglected the accountability of rulers. Official Wahhabi discourse pro-
duced consenting subjects rather than citizens.

Engaging with modernity

Before mid-twentieth century, Wahhabi ulama were literate men in an
illiterate society. With the establishment of the state and the advent of oil
wealth and mass education, they became one group among several
capable of articulating religious ideas and interpretations. Their engage-
ment with modernity centred on formulating opinions on whether
aspects of modernity were permissible or prohibited. In addition to their
long-established expertise in creed and ritual purity, official ulama devel-
oped religious rulings regarding technological aspects of modernity (cars,
aeroplanes, radio, television, cassettes, faxes and the internet), and its
economic challenges (banking, insurance and other new economic inno-
vations). Socially, official Wahhabi scholars devoted considerable energy
to issuing opinions that maintained strict control over men and women.
Their fatwas on sex segregation, women’s attire, false eyelashes, sports
centres, body massage, hair removal and other innovations related to
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 55

social and physical femininity are notorious.101 A survey of volumes of

Wahhabi fatwas, together with thousands of sound bites on local and
satellite Saudi television channels, indicates the centrality of ritual prac-
tices in Wahhabi thought and expertise, used to control the social sphere.
These fatwas reflect a desperate attempt by the ulama to remain relevant
in a changing world.
These fatwas also demonstrate the failure of Wahhabi ulama to engage
with modernity beyond formulating opinions on the permissible and the
prohibited in the social sphere and in ritual practice. These concerns
stem from their desire to control an Islamised public sphere, taken to
measure the piety of state and society.
Modernity paved the way for the emergence of the young, articulate,
computer literate and cosmopolitan Wahhabi scholar. Today most official
Saudi ulama and preachers have their own websites. The Wahhabi
message is no longer preserved in handwritten chronicles and epistles,
copied on small wooden boards or paper, which was in short supply only
half a century ago. Today the tradition is continued in polished and ele-
gantly bound high-quality volumes, CD ROMs, and internet web pages.
The life expectancy of the interpreters and guardians of the Wahhabiyya
is stretched beyond the imagination of their predecessors, who until
recently suffered blindness and chronic deadly illnesses, including
cholera, chicken pox and measles.102 Today state ulama travel abroad for
medical treatment, live in luxurious villas, receive substantial sums of
money for their noble services to political authority, Islam and Muslims,
and preside over committees, charitable organisations and international
religious conferences attended not only by the faithful from the main local
historic centres of Wahhabi religious learning, but also from places as
close as Mecca and Medina and as far away as Jakarta, New Delhi, Lagos
and London. The image of the blind, miserable and poor scholar, living on
a meagre income in return for religious services, has given way to wealthy
guardians of the tradition, who are seen on television screens greeting
princes and international delegations visiting the country. The early schol-
ars whose names were linked to entrepreneurial commercial families are
now wealthier, more influential and more connected with the world of
power, money and scholarship, thanks to a solid alliance with the ruling
family and generous handouts that cement loyalty and dependency. Being
part of religious industry and bureaucracy has proved to be a good mecha-
nism for social and economic mobility. While modern society needed sci-
entists, doctors and engineers, it also needed religious scholars to ensure
that no blasphemous aspects of modernity are incorporated or endorsed.
Wahhabi ulama today play an important ceremonial role in the patina
of Islam that covers Saudi society. Scholars distinguished by their beards,
56 Contesting the Saudi State

special headgear that is not tied by uqal (head-rope), and ankle-length

thawb (male robes) have become an indispensable chorus in the drama of
power that unfolds daily on Saudi local and satellite television and in the
print media. Senior princes must be seen greeting important scholars
during all national events, just as they need to be seen distributing prizes
to students who have excelled in memorising the Quran and sharia sci-
ences. Religious scholars rush to greet princes at airports and in glam-
orous public places surrounded by media and well-wishers. They play the
role of ritual elders who claim the power to interpret sacred texts, sanc-
tion power and enchant the audience.
Official Wahhabis accepted and endorsed aspects of modernity only if
these fell under their control. For example, after objecting to female edu-
cation in the early 1960s, they accepted it after being put in charge of the
female curriculum and schools.103 Similarly, in the early 1960s they
objected to television, but later agreed to it when they were assured that
they would dominate broadcasting. In the 1990s they denounced satellite
television, but later endorsed it after they were guaranteed constant
appearances on religious programmes. Today they have their own televi-
sion channels, for example Iqra and al-Majd. They originally denounced
the internet as immoral, but since 1998 they have become active partici-
pants in cyberspace through personal websites and discussion boards.
After decades of considering elections bida (an un-Islamic alien innova-
tion),104 in 2005 they not only accepted partial municipal elections but
endorsed and patronised the candidates. Important scholars visited
contestants in their campaign tents and made it known that they offered
informal certificates of good conduct (tazkiyya). It is unlikely that they
would object to general elections if they are promised control over the
process, a development that would also be welcomed by the political
The innovations of modernity, together with communication technol-
ogy, have allowed both the consolidation and contestation of official
Wahhabi discourse. Official Wahhabiyya has showed great flexibility and
pragmatism. However, this was entirely dependent on the gains that would
accrue to its most prominent figures as a result of accepting and legitimis-
ing innovations. While modernity consolidated and spread Wahhabi dis-
course both in Saudi Arabia and abroad, it resulted simultaneously in its
contestation. Both advocates and critics of Wahhabiyya have endorsed
modern technology for the promotion of their message. While the means
for the dissemination of Wahhbaiyya has become ultra-modern, the
message remains far removed from the spirit of political modernity.
Official Wahhabi ulama have failed to deal with the political and ethical
aspects of modernity. Politics has remained a prohibited field, discussed
Official Wahhabi religio-political discourse 57

only by al-khassa, a minority of chosen people, mainly the umara and

themselves, who are endowed with the ability to interpret sacred texts and
advise the ruler accordingly. However, this ability to interpret the sacred
is now shared with a whole range of other non-official ulama, intellectuals
and laymen, all a product of increased literacy and education. Official
Wahhabiyya has watched the proliferation of religious discourse with
great alarm.
Wahhabi scholars preferred to leave politics to the state while concen-
trating on matters related to fiqh al-halal wa l-haram (jurisprudence of
the permissible and the forbidden) and fiqh al-ibadat (jurisprudence
of worship). Traditional Wahhabiyya shied away from engaging with
obvious and important polemics related to the nature of the Islamic state,
the selection of the Muslim ruler, the status of kingship in Islam (al-
mulk), the accountability of rulers and other political matters. No impor-
tant theological doctrine was developed in these areas because of their
political sensitivity, which such intellectual exercise would expose.
Wahhabi ulama continued to reiterate opinions of selected scholars of the
medieval period without serious engagement with contemporary political
issues. Their excuse was that they are Salafis, following in the footsteps of
an earlier generation of pious ancestors.
The official ulama failed to reflect on their own role in the modern
Saudi state. They refrained from critically examining this role and tracing
its evolving nature. Simply content with being guardians of the moral
order while leaving political power in the hands of the ruling family and
an expanding class of bureaucrats and technocrats, they lacked self-
consciousness and awareness. The Saudi ulama accepted the de facto sep-
aration between religion and politics, while adopting a narrow definition
of religion as all matters relating to personal conduct and ibada
(worship). They excelled in controlling the social sphere while leaving the
political field in the hands of the state. The Wahhabi ulama contributed
to the consolidation of a state that is politically secular and socially reli-
gious. This enigmatic duality is an important feature of the contemporary
Saudi regime, often overlooked in scholarly work on the country.
Traditional ulama engaged with modernity through the prism of the
permissible and prohibited. This is not surprising given their training and
expertise. After all, their occupation requires them to formulate such
opinions. However, their only engagement with contemporary problems
has been to condemn modern society for its alleged corruption, con-
sumerism, moral laxity and degeneration. The view that society consists
of potential sinners cannot be conducive to any form of democratic
government or political participation. How can society give its opinion
on important political matters when it is potentially dhal (astray or
58 Contesting the Saudi State

debauched)? This position stands in opposition to the Prophetic tradi-

tion, which clearly states that Muhammad’s umma cannot agree upon
error. Official Wahhabiyya coerced society morally, symbolically and
physically in order to ensure its ‘Islamisation’, thus theoretically ensuring
good Islamic government and political acquiescence. This position
served the interests of the state, since the state was keen to be seen as
guarding the Islamic moral order.
Official ulama were far removed from urgent issues that dominated the
intellectual scene in the Arab and Islamic world such as questions of
social justice, political participation, the rights of women and minorities,
the relationship between the modern nation-state and the wider Muslim
world, relations with the international community, membership in inter-
national organisations and other urgent matters that flooded public
debate in the second half of the twentieth century. Official Wahhabis
remained oblivious to these matters while celebrating the Muslim
state created under the banner of the Al-Saud and allegedly according to
the principles of tawhid (the oneness of God). The failure of official
Wahhabiyya to engage with the more problematic political aspects of
modernity, in addition to its rejection of other Muslim traditions, led to
the movement becoming a contested religious field in its own society and
by people who claim to be Salafis. Today official Wahhabiyya is entangled
in serious intellectual battles with diverse opponents, some of whom are
its previous disciples (for example Sahwis and Jihadis) whereas others are
historical enemies (for example Saudi liberals, Shiis, Sufis and Ismailis).
In Saudi Arabia today, official Wahhabiyya is one Salafiyya among others.
The relationship between religion and politics in Saudi Arabia clearly
illustrates that the state is not a ‘theocratic unitarian state’, as described
by an earlier generation of scholars and often repeated in the Western
media.105 The Saudi regime is a hybrid formation that subjects religion to
political will. It is neither fully secular nor religious. It is a pragmatic entity
that has survived as a result of the strength of the power of oil and mystifi-
cation, both internal and external. It is best described as a post-modern
pastiche. The gap between the social sphere controlled by religious schol-
ars and the political sphere controlled by royalty is responsible for serious
contradictions experienced at the level of the individual and society. It is
this contradiction that is a fertile incubator for the violence that is unfold-
ing in Saudi Arabia. While some Saudis continue to regard their
Islamised social public sphere as a reflection of Islamic government,
others are aware of the contradiction between rhetoric and reality. In
debating this reality some have resorted to the word, whereas others have
preferred the sword. In both situations, the consenting Wahhabi religio-
political discourse carried the seeds of its own contestation.
2 Re-enchanting politics: Sahwis from
contestation to co-optation

We, the youth of Islam, were able to dismantle the circle of subservience
to the West, reject its deceiving civilisation, know its conspiracies, but so
far we do not know the reality of who we are . . . I am surprised that the
vanguards of the Islamic call think that the religion of the people of
Sunna and jammaa is about theoretical propositions relating to the
unknown world rather than about a call for reform and change.
Sheikh Safar al-Hawali, Sharh, p. 9

Official Wahhabiyya created consenting subjects. Wealth allowed the

Saudi regime to consolidate aspects of religion in the public sphere while
pursuing gradual but determined political secularisation.1 Saudi society
and the public sphere were ‘Islamised’ while politics and the modern state
remained an autonomous field beyond the reach of most senior religious
scholars. Official ulama developed a discourse that sanctioned this
schism. The Wahhabi tradition described in the last chapter ensured that
politics remained in the hands of those who claim to know people’s inter-
est. The guiding principle was – and still is – al-hukam alam bi al-
maslaha’ (the rulers know the public good). Official Wahhabi scholars
removed not only themselves but the rest of society from political matters.
They prohibited engagement in public affairs. Their religious discourse,
especially that which confirmed the potential corruption and blasphemy
of the umma, reinforced the marginalisation of the public and their exclu-
sion from the political decision-making process. Under the banner of the
state, official Wahhabiyya refined and consolidated a religious discourse
that disenfranchised society and disenchanted politics.
The official Wahhabi tradition led to the consolidation of a society pre-
dominantly preoccupied with ritualistic Islam. Society evolved into a
community of the faithful who vigorously engage in controlled ibadat
(rituals of worship), both communal and individual, that are regularly
displayed in the public sphere. Such display is strictly controlled, and
any deviation is condemned as innovation. Prayer, fasting and pilgrimage
have been turned into spectacles regularly dramatised on local and
satellite television channels. The enchantment of society, however, was
60 Contesting the Saudi State

restricted to the level of religious practice. In politics, only an enchanting

rhetoric was retained while state practice attested to a different reality. In
its propaganda, the Saudi regime reiterates that it is dawlat al-tawhid (the
monotheist polity) that governs according to the revealed message of
God. In practice, many Saudis see a different reality.
Nothing exemplifies the enchantment of Saudi society like a local tele-
vision programme called Fatwa on Air, a special performance normally
hosting a religious scholar who responds to questions posed by the
public. The programme started in the 1960s and continues to the present
day. A scholar issues religious opinions regarding the questions asked.
Callers usually ask very specific questions. A woman wants to know
whether menstruating for three weeks qualifies as menstruation, thus pre-
venting her from performing prayers. A man asks whether it is permissible
to borrow money to allow his mother to perform the pilgrimage. A third
person asks whether high heels are permissible for women and whether
diamond rings are a legitimate accessory for men. The repetitiveness and
regularity of these television programmes confirm Saudi society as obses-
sively concerned with the ritualistic aspect of Islam. Such programmes
reduce a world religion to a set of prohibited and permissible actions for
the sake of demonstrating the religiosity of power. Questioning, offering
advice to or criticising the political authorities is prohibited on television
as much as it is elsewhere.
With the spread of new communication technology such as the inter-
net, Saudi religious scholars who have their own websites often include a
subsection, entitled ‘Fatwa on line’, where they respond to questions
often very similar to, if not more daring than, those posed by television
viewers. These sites are very popular, and continue to grow. Recently, a
single young Saudi posed a question to an important and famous reli-
gious scholar regarding whether he could have sexual relations with his
Filipino maid. He asked whether in this modern day a maid imported
from abroad and receiving a monthly salary can be considered jariyya, a
female slave, with whom sexual relations are licit in Islam. Women pose
questions whether cosmetic surgery, false eyelashes, trousers and high
heels are permissible. Religious scholars always find answers either based
on a clear textual reference from the Quran or Hadith or using other
methods for arriving at a ruling.
The procedure for issuing a religious ruling follows a well-known
formula. It starts with ‘God said’, thus citing one or two Quranic verses,
then ‘the Prophet said’, citing a Hadith, followed by quotations from the
sayings of al-salaf al-salih (the pious ancestors). In most cases the three
citations can easily be provided. However, new areas of social life for which
there are no clear verses to be cited are dealt with differently using ijtihad
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 61

(exertion in search of religious ruling) and qiyas (deduction by analogy) or

other well-known methods. On television, it is almost impossible to come
across callers who openly question religious scholars on public issues
relating to government policy, religious interpretations or any contested
and controversial topics. Callers avoid political issues such as democracy
and Islam, human rights in Islam, and how to deal with differences in reli-
gious interpretations. No discussion of obedience to rulers, the nature of
public advice to rulers or other politically sensitive matters is expected.
Fatwas are always concerned with the minute details of everyday life such
as personal piety or relations between individuals. Relations between ruler
and subjects are often discussed in public lectures where an audience
listens to lectures calling upon the faithful to obey. These lectures faith-
fully repeat the discourse discussed in the last chapter.
The state is heavily involved in the religious sphere, not only as sponsor
but also as controller. Princes are always seen distributing prizes among
people who serve religion, for example clever boys who memorise the
Quran at an early age, scholars who write religious treatises denouncing
the enemies of the regime, preachers who dedicate their lives to spreading
the official Wahhabi version of Islam, and so on. Princes often donate vast
sums for visible and prestigious Islamic projects that add to their standing
both locally and internationally. Saudis experience an enchanted world
and a mystified public sphere with several thousand religious specialists
contributing to maintaining this state of enchantment. It is estimated,
however, that of the approximately one million sermons and religious
lessons in mosques, only 300,000 are authorised by the Ministry of
Islamic Affairs.2
Issuing fatwas and religious instruction in general have been trans-
formed into highly professional activities that needed an expanding spe-
cialist religious bureaucracy, educational institutions and organisations.
The ‘people of knowledge’ are no longer a small coterie, educated in
Riyadh and drawn from its environs. By the end of the twentieth century,
the category included – in addition to the Najdi–Wahhabi core – thou-
sands of ulama, preachers, educators, university lecturers, ideologues
and others who came from various regions.
While official religious knowledge prepared a generation of consenting
subjects, in addition to ulama, religious teachers and preachers, a doctor-
ate in religious studies was a novelty that accompanied the establishment
of the ‘religious university’.3 Saudi Arabia had never had the equivalent of
al-Azhar, al-Qairawan or al-Najaf, where an ancient tradition of religious
learning was established. In modern times, the informal study circles that
flourished in the main holy cities, Mecca and Madina, lagged behind their
counterparts in other parts of the Muslim world. Oil money allowed
62 Contesting the Saudi State

Saudi Arabia the luxury, prestige and legitimacy associated with the most
sacred of knowledge: religious education.
The first Islamic university was established in Madina in 1961. In the
1990s, with a budget over $US50 million, the various faculties had 378
members of staff specialising in linguistics, Islamic literature, jurispru-
dence, Islamic law, sharia, Hadith, dawa and other branches of religious
studies.4 According to Saudi sources, in 2000–1, more than two thousand
students were registered at the university; 80 per cent of the total enrol-
ment were Saudis, with the remaining students coming from more than
seventy countries.5
In Riyadh, Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University was granted
university status in 1974 to cater for a local rather than an international
student population. Various religious colleges in Riyadh, such as the
Scientific Institute founded in 1950, and other small colleges in Qasim
were consolidated under the umbrella of this institution. With a budget of
$US280 million in 1990, the university had branches in several cities,
producing a total of over twenty thousand graduates every year.6 In
2000–1 the university had more than 1,300 teachers and more than
23,000 students, of whom 643 were female.7
In the early 1990s the Islamic University granted 131 doctorates and
the Imam University 264. While the universally accepted definition of a
doctorate assumes originality and critical thinking, a doctorate from one
of these universities may not meet these criteria. It is argued that ‘research
is commonly invoked and methodology courses are prescribed, but the
success of these efforts is uncertain, especially since the parameters of
research – the implicit “red lines” of permissible enquiry – are under-
stood . . . real controversy is avoided, and any hint of criticism of govern-
ment policies is non-existent’.8 Like religious television programmes,
many doctoral theses are studies of the minute details of worship.9 Others
deal with sectarian differences among Muslims, confirming that the
‘other’ is either outside Islam or an innovator. The red lines that are never
crossed by graduate students are often related to the religio-political
Wahhabi discourse, which remains unchallenged at least in a Wahhabi
university. However, as the university aimed to generate consent, contes-
tation was a by-product.
A doctorate in religious knowledge was a total innovation in the
Wahhabi tradition; nevertheless, it symbolised the transformation of the
consolidation and transmission of this knowledge. Historically not many
Wahhabi ulama engaged in writing theoretical treatises. The previous
generation of ulama, including Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself,
were ‘problem-solvers’ and jurists rather than religious intellectuals. With
the arrival of the modern university, religious knowledge moved from the
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 63

traditional study circles in the mosques and small maahid (institutes) of

Riyadh, Buraydah, Unayzah and Hail, where established religious figures
taught their followers, to the modern surroundings of the urban univer-
sity where a new modern-style education was adopted.10 Religious uni-
versities, in addition to other centres of higher learning where a religious
education is a compulsory component of the curriculum, produced not
only the modern religious scholar but also the Islamic intellectual. The
latter may or may not have specialised in religious knowledge but has
enough understanding of the tradition to articulate opinions and offer
Historically, major centres of religious learning in the Muslim world
were truly transnational spaces where a tradition evolved as a result of the
cross-fertilisation of ideas and scholars who had roots in different parts of
the Islamic world. Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad and later Cairo where
most of the Sunni Islamic tradition was produced over generations were
real transnational centres. Al-Azhar in Cairo was the Mecca of Sunni
scholars. Minor centres in North Africa and the Near East were not in a
position to compete with al-Azhar.
Riyadh, with its religious institutes and newly established religious uni-
versities, and even Madina, where the first Islamic university was founded
in the country, could not initially compete with the early centres of reli-
gious learning in the Arab world. Although Saudi Arabia received hun-
dreds of scholars and thinkers from the Arab and Islamic world, its official
ulama resisted any opening up to other Muslims, who were defined as
‘foreign’. They welcomed foreign ulama only to convert them to their
cause. They refrained from debating with other Muslim scholars as they
applied the principle of hajr al-mubtadi (the ostracisation of innovators):
those who could not be ‘converted’ must be ostracised. They feared that
such foreign scholars might not conform to Saudi religious interpreta-
tions. Foreigners had to be ‘controlled’ and ‘guided’ to avoid corrupting
the local tradition. Educational institutions and religious instruction were
from the very beginning put under the control of local Najdi ulama.
Foreign educators were enlisted to ‘deliver’ the curriculum rather than
interpret it. The latter was the prerogative of a closed circle which was not
even open for Saudis outside the traditional religious centre, let alone
(Arab and Muslim) foreigners. The state allowed its ulama to administer
and control the dissemination of religious knowledge by foreign instruc-
tors to ensure that the latter did not promote any religio-political inter-
pretations that could threaten the discourse of consent or introduce
religious innovations. The state rewarded the ulama who were in charge
of perpetuating and refining the discourse of consent by granting them a
monopoly over religious interpretation. It was in the interest of both the
64 Contesting the Saudi State

state and the ulama to maintain control and surveillance. The religious
establishment, staffed by loyalist Wahhabi–Salafi ulama, resisted any
manifestation of, for example, imported foreign (Egyptian and Syrian)
Ikhwani (Muslim Brotherhood) ideas into the classroom and the mosque
to safeguard against contestation. However, an undeclared ‘hidden war’
was raging in study circles, intellectual centres and even summer camps
between local official Wahhabi Salafiyya and so-called ‘foreign’ interpre-
tations. The war ceased to be hidden after 11 September when official
Saudi religious discourse started openly to attack the foreign Muslim
Brotherhood and other haraki Islamists. According to one author, to
function in Saudi Arabia one must wear the Salafi cloak like an official
uniform’.11 In fact, many Egyptian and Syrian religious scholars and edu-
cators did adopt Saudi attire. They looked Saudi but spoke in their local
regional accents. Many abandoned the Egyptian or Syrian headgear asso-
ciated with religious scholars in favour of the Saudi ‘Salafi–Wahhabi’
uniform, consisting of a rather short shirt and head cover, always worn
untied with a head-rope. Unlike their colleagues who remained at home,
they stopped trimming their beards.
Society and local scholars remained suspicious of the Islam of ‘others’,
namely other Saudis and the newly arriving Muslim immigrants and
exiles. The latter were employed as teachers and religious instructors and
were under strict orders to respect the ‘Saudi religious curriculum’. Their
integration remained fraught with tension and suspicion inside Saudi
Arabia. Immigrants, especially those who belonged to the Egyptian
and Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods, refrained from questioning Saudi–
Wahhabi religio-political interpretations, if they wanted to remain in their
jobs. Occasionally an immigrant alim or Muslim thinker would be
expelled, or ‘sent abroad’ on a religious mission. While Saudi Arabia
adopted an ‘open-door policy’ towards the Muslim Brotherhood in the
1960s, to serve its own battle against Nasserites and Bathists, immigrants
knew that they could not openly contest the religious interpretations of
their host. Several scholars assimilated Saudi religio-political discourse in
their own worldview. This resulted in the emergence of hybrid and cross-
fertilised religious interpretations.
Modernity brought the university, which in turn produced individuals
who were not only religious in the traditional ritualistic sense of the term
but also conscious of their religious knowledge. The university produced
graduates who could articulate this consciousness and express it in a
modern language that appeals to a public wider than the traditional spe-
cialist ulama study circle. It produced interpreters of religion who engage
with the social and political realities of contemporary society. This engage-
ment distinguished the new ulama and intellectuals from the previous
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 65

generation that dominated the religious scene in the pre-oil era. The uni-
versity, together with printing and audio media, allowed the dissemination
of religious knowledge to a wide audience. The religious text became
available beyond the limited study circle of scholars. Moreover, the same
university produced people who ‘are not bound by traditional norms and
rules of religious discursive activity . . . the modern intellectual will be
able to read deeper into the text in a critical, imaginative manner’.12
With the formalisation and modernisation of the environment in which
religious knowledge develops, highly articulate voices appeared, aware of
the wide gap between the enchanted Islamised consenting public sphere
and the secularised political domain. For this generation, the dramatised
ritualistic Islam was simply not enough. From within the Wahhabi tradi-
tion and among people who were brought up on its teachings, voices
emerged that expressed uneasiness about the evolution of Wahhabiyya
under state control. It is important to emphasise that not all those who
expressed this uneasiness are young men. Some important figures are old
members of the previous ulama generation, thus belonging to the tradi-
tional Wahhabi ulama group. While most of the new generation of ulama
and intellectuals endorsed Wahhabi social conservatism, they were
uncomfortable with the religio-political aspect of that tradition. This new
generation refers to itself as shabab al-sahwa (the youth of the awakening),
or Sahwis (the awakened), a self-adopted appellation that carries multiple
implications. While Wahhabiyya was in general a name imposed by out-
siders on the teachings of aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya, the name Sahwa is
willingly adopted by those who regard themselves as part of it – the
Sahwis themselves. In this chapter, I trace the changing nature of Sahwa
and its evolution from contestation to co-optation.

The meaning of Sahwa: re-enchanting politics

Several studies have now traced the development of the new Sahwi trend
in Saudi Arabia since the 1990s. Studies in Western languages offered
detailed biographies of famous Sahwis such as Sheikhs Salman al-Awdah,
Safar al-Hawali and Nasir al-Omar, documented their rhetoric and fol-
lowed their engagement with politics over a critical decade in the history
of the country. Most previous research focused on Sahwis as a local Saudi
variant of political Islam, Islamists and recently radical Salafi groups.
Saudi sources also identified Sahwa as a manifestation of what is pejora-
tively referred to by Saudi liberals as Islamawis, defined as an uncompro-
mising group who ‘use’ and ‘abuse’ Islam in pursuit of ideological
aspirations and political careers.13 In most liberal and official Wahhabi
discourse, Sahwa is seen as a product of alien religious interpretations
66 Contesting the Saudi State

and Islamist political movements, mainly the Egyptian and Syrian

Muslim Brotherhood, Qutbist14 ideologies and Jihadi trends. It is ironic
that both Saudi liberals and official religious scholars detest Sahwa and
Sahwis. Both realise the threatening potential of Sahwis who call not only
for the Islamisation of society, as society is already Islamised, but – more
importantly – for the deconstruction of the quiescent official Wahhabi
discourse and its replacement with a discourse of contestation. Liberals
and official Wahhabis both fear the revolutionary potential of Sahwi
religio-political discourse, which threatens to dismantle the monopoly of
liberals over the affairs of state and the official ulama over the religious
domain. Sahwis are detested because they undermine the age-old divi-
sion between the religious society and secular politics. In short, they
threaten the schism that grew and flourished under the state and official
Wahhabi religio-political discourse. A Saudi preacher by the name of
Musa al-Abdulaziz, the editor of a very marginal magazine called
Salafiyyah, declared that liberals are closer to Islam and Salafiyya than
Sahwi Qutbis. He argued that liberals have a better instinct (fitra).15
Traditional and official Wahhabi scholars are scathing in their attacks
on Sahwis.16 My intention here is to consider Sahwa as a state of mind
and a plan of action. Sahwa is built on a realisation that ordinary man can
be at the centre of his own destiny. Sahwa is neither creed nor worship; it
is neither religion nor politics: it is both.
Sahwis are a loose and fluid sub-group within the community of the
faithful who from the 1970s strove to establish a distinct identity for
themselves. The mentors of the first generation of Sahwis were in fact the
traditional Wahhabi ulama, assisted by a group of Arab religious scholars
and educators, mainly from Egypt and Syria, who migrated – voluntarily
or involuntarily – to Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. Two Arab ulama are often
cited as influencing Sahwa: an Egyptian, Muhammad Qutb, the brother
of Sayyid Qutb; and a Syrian, Sheikh Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abdin.
Both taught in Saudi educational institutions in the 1960s. While some
studies have highlighted the influence of these ‘foreign’ scholars who
settled in Saudi Arabia, it is important to examine Sahwism as an
autonomous Saudi phenomenon that lies at the heart of political activism
in the country. While Sahwis may have been influenced by outside
intellectuals and religious scholars, they are a manifestation of a local
evolution in Saudi society that began in the 1970s. While external
influences on Sahwis are often exaggerated, the way Saudi Sahwis, espe-
cially the Salafis amongst them, influenced other Islamists abroad is often
ignored. Some famous Saudi Sahwis are no longer local figures; their
lectures are heard among Muslims worldwide. Saudi Sahwis have blurred
the boundaries between the local and the global. One can read their
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 67

publications anywhere in the world, and access their mosque sermons,

seminars and lectures on the internet. Today one can easily switch from
Sheikh Ibn Baz’s lecture on obedience to wali al-amr to Salman al-
Awdah’s lecture on the fall of nations, passing by Nasir al-Omar’s
sermons on resistance in Iraq.
In an increasingly connected world, it is very difficult to identify the
boundaries between the local and the global. There is no doubt that the
Sahwa was influenced by external ideas. Nevertheless, it is grounded in
local discourse, and later spread its influence beyond the geographical ter-
ritory of its own homeland. More importantly, Sahwi thought is a hybrid
tradition that rediscovered the revolutionary potential of Wahhabi religio-
political discourse and rearticulated it in a modern language accessible to
all. This rediscovery was perhaps assisted by various outside influences
that arrived in Saudi Arabia in the second half of the twentieth century. It
may well be that Qutbi or Muslim Brotherhood discourse and figures
facilitated this rediscovery. The Muslim Brotherhood may have had an
important influence, but to forge a causal relationship serves only political
purposes, for example absolving Saudis from any responsibility for vio-
lence. The aim here is not to blame an external group or ideology for ‘rad-
icalising Saudi youth’ or ‘leading them astray’, as often claimed in official
Saudi statements, but rather to show the complexity of the religio-political
field and how it may evade simple reductionist causal explanations.
In the Saudi context Sahwa is a movement that strives to re-enchant a
politically dis-enchanted world. According to Sheikh Salman al-Awdah,
Sahwa is concerned with inkar al-munkar alanan (disavowing the abom-
inable in public). This is a political act that is guided by religious interpre-
tation. In Saudi Arabia only the state and its official ulama have the right
and power to reject the abominable. Al-Awdah challenges this view, as he
considers it the responsibility of all.
A Sahwi has an awareness of his religiosity which distinguishes him
from those whose religiosity is habitual and traditional. Sahwis do not
simply perform religious rituals out of habit; they often exhibit an aware-
ness of their engagement, not only with such rituals but also in public
affairs. For the majority of Sahwis, Islam is not simply a set of repetitive
rituals (ibadat): it is a psychological state and a blueprint for social and
political engagement with the contemporary world. Islam is a project
whose realisation starts with the self through iltizam, commitment not
only to the prescribed five pillars of the tradition but also to what is con-
sidered its ‘essence’. Bringing out the so-called ‘essence’ requires a vision
of the present and future that privileges religious texts and identity. This
tends to be ignored in discussion of Sahwis. It is often argued that the
discourse about the return to the tradition of the great pious ancestors
68 Contesting the Saudi State

represents nostalgia to the glorious past – in the language of Saudi critics

of Sahwa, a desire to return to an archaic and pre-modern existence. This
is an inaccurate understanding of the Salafi Sahwi rhetoric that invokes
the past. Salafi Sahwis use the rhetoric of the past to manipulate the
present and build the future. They are grounded in current concerns.
Sahwis use modern technology to disseminate a modern message,
although this message is grounded in the rhetoric of the past and the
ancestors. Like a tribe’s obsession with genealogies, Sahwis’ ‘obsession’
with the past is rooted in contemporary society and modern concerns.
Aidh al-Qarni, a famous Sahwi sheikh, defines the Islamic awakening as
‘renewal of religion while retaining its authenticity. It means that we
return to religion in order to deal with contemporary and very new con-
cerns that dominate civilisation and society . . . Sahwa means to return to
the roots after a long period of ightirab [alienation, exile] and static exis-
tence.’17 While Sahwa may represent itself through increased commit-
ment to ritualistic Islam, it is above all a state of mind that allows a
Muslim to have Islam and only Islam as a reference point for all aspects of
life, including public political affairs. At the individual level, Sahwis have
a commitment not only to the salvation of the self but also to society.
Sahwis include formally trained religious scholars who qualify as
members of the ulama class, in addition to ordinary men. Some Sahwis
are scientists, doctors, engineers, chemists, writers and journalists, but
may have studied religion as part of their education. They all therefore
have some degree of religious knowledge that enables them to articulate
opinions on religious texts. This puts them in the category of what is
known as Islamic intellectuals, who constitute a category between the tra-
ditional ulama and laymen. They do not qualify as religious scholars,
who can issue fatwas, yet they have enough knowledge of the tradition to
invoke its texts and interpretation as need arises. Unlike those who are
traditionally religious, they are aware of the multiplicity of interpretations
and meanings that can be attributed to the religious text. This does not
mean that Sahwis can be automatically considered strong believers in the
diversity of religious interpretation. It simply means that they are aware of
the diversity, although they may not accept it. They can be as dogmatic as
any other social category in Saudi society.
All Sahwi intellectuals are products of the modern education system in
Saudi Arabia and a substantial number hold doctorates in various
branches of the sciences. Many Sahwi intellectuals follow a Sahwi sheikh,
a scholar upon whom they depend for ilm shari (sharia knowledge),
inspiration and authenticity. By claiming to be among the followers of a
Sahwi sheikh, they seek recognition by proxy. Such a Sahwi intellectual
would often be known as mufakir Islami (a Muslim thinker). They are
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 69

rarely referred to as muthaqaf – an intellectual who is often associated

with acquiring Western knowledge, especially in the arts, humanities and
social sciences. Sahwi intellectuals disseminate their ideas in books, news-
paper articles, sermons, lectures and sometimes their own websites.
While their position between laymen and ulama can be an advantage in
an increasingly literate and connected society, it also carries a problematic
ambiguity. Sahwi intellectuals defend their venturing into religious inter-
pretation on the basis that in Islam there is no such category as rijal din
(clergy), as each Muslim is required to know religion. In the opinion of
many Sahwis, the word ulama simply refers to those who know, regard-
less of the substance of their knowledge.
Saudi Sahwis are engaged in this world, especially its politics. All
Sahwis subscribe to the view that the world can be changed, modified,
altered and improved by communal human action that draws on religious
sources, mainly the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet. Organising
society in small groups, attending lectures, debating politics and religion
– and even secret meetings – are all legitimate means to engage with
public affairs. Above all, Sahwis strongly believe in their right to issue
public advice on current affairs, and openly to criticise government poli-
cies, thus violating an important official Wahhabi dogma. They believe
that the duty of publicly disavowing the abominable (inkar al-munkar),
including telling the ruler that he has committed an abominable act or
violated the rule of sharia, is incumbent upon all Muslims, rather than a
small coterie of ulama. Sahwis criticise the religious establishment for
publicly condemning the abominable only if committed by laymen, and
since the early 1990s, Sahwis have distinguished themselves by carrying
out this duty, and especially by condemning abominable or inappropriate
actions on the part of the rulers.
Sahwis do not subscribe to a single well-defined political party or
organisation. They may belong to various Islamist movements. There are,
for example, groups identified with the Muslim Brotherhood in its two
variants: followers of Hasan al-Banna and those of Sayyid Qutb. These
tend to be concentrated in several national and pan-Islamic organisa-
tions, in addition to universities and intellectual circles. It seems,
however, that in general the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood have remained
conspicuous by their absence. They have stayed away from populist poli-
tics and remained an intellectual trend without a wide populist public
base. However, this assessment remains impressionistic and is based
on a description by Saudi Ikhwanis of their own position on the religio-
political map of Saudi Arabia.18
There are also groups whose political orientation derives from the
Syrian sheikh Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abdin, a Salafi Ikhwani
70 Contesting the Saudi State

scholar, who separated from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and set up
his own tradition. It is often claimed that his followers in Saudi Arabia are
the most numerous among Sahwis. His tradition will be discussed later in
this chapter, but suffice here to say that the sheikh’s name is often men-
tioned in conjunction with discussion of the Saudi Sahwa.
Other Sahwis follow global political movements, for example Hizb al-
Tahrir and al-Qaida. Supporters of the Movement for Islamic Renewal,
al-Tajdid, based in London and led by Muhammad al-Masari, adopt the
intellectual orientation of Hizb al-Tahrir. Al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula invokes a clear association with Osama bin Laden. Its followers
are often called Salafi Jihadis.
Regardless of their political affiliation, most Sahwis are easily identified
as haraki Islamists. The fact that political parties are banned in Saudi
Arabia makes it difficult to identify the main political trends and their
membership. Not many Sahwis will voluntarily declare their party
affiliation, if they have one. However, with the arrival of the internet in
1998, Saudi Sahwis made the most of this new communication technol-
ogy to create virtual communities that share similar religious and ideolog-
ical orientation. The well-known among them have their own websites
and discussion boards, while their followers contribute to the debate
under pseudonyms as a protection against arrest and other hazards. Some
Sahwi ulama have their own electronic newsletters.
The Saudi awakening is about the realisation that it is religiously
incumbent on society to be engaged with politics. Sahwa is contrasted
with an opposite state of mind, gafwa (deep sleep), comparable to inertia
and indifference. Sahwis are political activists. They do not accept that
calling for the oneness of God (al-tawhid) is the primary purpose of Islam,
a position that distinguishes them from the religious establishment. In the
opinion of one Saudi, the Prophet called for the declaration that ‘there is
no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger’, not for the estab-
lishment of an Islamic state.19 Therefore, purifying religious practice
from shirk (blasphemy) becomes the primary obligation. For Sahwis, the
Islamic call is a call for the establishment of the Islamic polity, and the
application of sharia (tahkim al-shar). Their philosophy goes far beyond
purifying religion from heterodoxy.
Neither the ulama nor the intellectuals among the Sahwis shy away
from venturing into territory often regarded as taboo in Saudi Arabia.
Sahwis volunteer public interpretations of foreign relations, interna-
tional politics and the role of Saudi Arabia in the world, all traditionally
the prerogative of a small coterie of royalty and assistants, who operate
behind closed doors. Sahwi ulama write both theological treatises and
political pamphlets concerned with world affairs.20 Sahwis challenge the
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 71

official worldview that politics is the prerogative of the ruler and his
entourage. They believe that public affairs are the concern of the
community of the faithful, and see themselves at the centre of al-shan
al-am (public affairs). Sahwis initially claimed that the appearance of
an Islamised society does not automatically mean an Islamic polity,
although it is essentially the first step towards creating one. An Islamic
polity needs more than ritualistic Islam. Its realisation requires
Muslims to be vigorously engaged in public affairs through communal
organisation and activism, a vision that is challenging to both the state
and the official religious worldview described in the last chapter. Sahwis
blur the boundaries between religion and politics – boundaries that
the official Wahhabi establishment managed to keep separate, with the
sanction of the Saudi regime while retaining the rhetoric of the
monotheist state (dawlat al-tawhid). Blurring the boundaries between
religion and politics makes it incumbent upon Sahwis to take a
position vis-à-vis political authority and the guardians of the official
Wahhabi tradition. This, they claim, is guided by an interpretation of
the religious texts.
Sahwis differ in their attitude to political authority. In general, they can
be divided into two camps, those who accept it as legitimate government,
but in need of reform, and those who reject it altogether as an illegitimate
authority. Those who publicly accept the legitimacy of the Saudi regime
strive peacefully to ‘influence’ it and make it correspond more to their
vision of the rightful Islamic polity. Those who reject the existing authori-
ties altogether work towards undermining and eventually overthrowing
the regime, by either peaceful means or violence. All Sahwi sub-groups
are a product of the Sahwi belief in the ability of the individual and society
to change the world through various means. All Sahwis share the belief
that the existing government is imperfect.
All Sahwis have reservations about the religio-political discourse of the
official Wahhabi establishment that denounces their political activism,
and have a contentious and strained relationship with its main figures.
They have problems accepting some aspects of this tradition as it became
institutionalised in Saudi Arabia in the last decades of the twentieth
century. Sahwis who are Salafis accept Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s
theology but may have reservations regarding the current Saudi state and
its ulama. Such Sahwis glorify the first state of the eighteenth century,
but have serious reservations about the current one. Some argue that the
present regime has failed to fulfil the spirit of the early message. They
point out that current Wahhabi ulama have abandoned the teachings of
an early generation of strong and brave ulama who maintained their inde-
pendence vis-à-vis previous Saudi imams and kings.
72 Contesting the Saudi State

All Sahwis challenge the official religious interpretation that disenfran-

chises society when it comes to political matters. They do not accept that
only a small group of people distinguished by either their religious knowl-
edge or secular expertise has the right to monopolise state policy and
strategy. They aspire towards greater say in urgent social, political and
economic issues. While the Sahwi ulama aspire to replace the traditional
ulama, intellectuals among them aim to occupy a privileged public posi-
tion in state bureaucracy and apparatus.
Nevertheless, the boundaries between the various Sahwi positions have
always been fluid and unclear. In a country such as Saudi Arabia, where
censorship of the religious and political domains remains very strong, it is
extremely difficult for any analysis to go beyond what is publicly declared
and stated by outspoken Sahwis. Throughout this research many Sahwis
have pointed my attention to the fact that Sahwis who publicly accept the
Saudi regime denounce it in the privacy of their closed meetings. During
the 1990s several Sahwi activists were put in prison for expressing politi-
cal views that undermined government decisions, an episode in Saudi
history that is now well documented.21 Several Sahwi ulama, for example
Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-Awdah, and other Sahwi intellectuals,
such as Abdulaziz al-Qasim, Muhammad al-Hodhayf, Muhsin al-Awajy,
Saad al-Faqih and Muhammad al-Masari, spent some time in prison as a
result of activism that was deemed challenging to the government.
Government oppression of such figures was not challenged by the official
Wahhabi tradition, especially Grand Mufti Abdulaziz ibn Baz. In the early
1990s, Sahwis were considered personae non gratae who undermined
unity and cohesion among the believers. While most intellectuals spent a
short time in prison, some Sahwi ulama were jailed for over five years.
Most activists lost their previous jobs and were banned from public
preaching, lecturing and study circles. Sahwis remember the 1990s as the
decade of imprisonment, which, although characterised by loss of per-
sonal freedom and rights, was also a time that allowed many of them to
build a symbolic capital manifested in popularity, prestige and fame.
Imprisonment fixed Sahwis in the historical imagination of their follow-
ers as courageous activists who sacrificed personal benefit in the pursuit
of public good. Their opponents, mainly Saudi liberals and official gov-
ernment spokesmen, often hold them responsible for radicalising the
young population and creating the grounds for the violent Jihadi trend.

One Sahwi group among others

As mentioned earlier, pluralism, more recently amounting to fragmenta-
tion and even hostility between various Sahwi groups, is one important
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 73

aspect of the Saudi Sahwa. One influential Sahwi sub-group is often

referred to in the public sphere as Sururis, a reference to followers of
Syrian sheikh Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abdin, hereafter Muhammad
Surur. This appellation is rejected by both the sheikh himself and by those
who may have drawn on aspects of his thought. The sheikh states: ‘I do not
know of a group called Sururi. I have never been responsible for such a
group. If somebody says to me “I am a Sururi,” I will disown him.’22
The name Sururi is, however, retained by outsiders, either to empha-
sise the ‘foreignness’ of this sub-group or its hizbiyya (adherence to party
politics). In this section I shall draw a picture of the sheikh’s intellectual
heritage as a prelude to discussing the evolution of Saudi Sahwis who are
often identified by outsiders as being his followers. Sheikh Muhammad
Surur may have inspired some Saudi sheikhs while he was a religious
teacher in the religious institutes and schools of Buraydah, the home town
of Salman al-Awdah.
Sheikh Muhammad Surur came to Saudi Arabia in 1965. He is known
as a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood supporter who had fled his country
under the pressure of the Bath party. He is also known to have founded
his own movement, which split from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
However, his ideas, published in several books, journals and on his al-
Sunnah website, demonstrate a strong Salafi orientation mixed with the
organisational capabilities of the Muslim Brotherhood, hence the name
Salafi Ikhwani. A central feature of his religious view relates to a critical
stance vis-à-vis ‘official ulama’, in the Muslim world in general as well as
in Saudi Arabia. After spending eight years in Saudi Arabia, it seems that
he left, or was asked to leave, around 1973.
In most accounts of the influence of ‘outside agents’ on the Saudi
religio-political field, Sahwis are portrayed as unquestioning followers of
Islamist exiles from Syria and Egypt, including Sheikh Muhammad
Surur. Gilles Kepel tends to reiterate this view.23 He depicts an image of
Saudi Sahwis as passive recipients of a foreign, politicised Islam that grew
in response to Bathist and Nasserite oppression and was brought to
Saudi Arabia by exiles. This view is also held by the Saudi regime.
Perhaps Kepel’s inability to realise the full potential of Wahhabi discourse
and the social evolution of Saudi society in the 1970s made him reach
such unjustified conclusions. In his account, he does not entertain the
possibility that Sheikh Muhammad Surur himself and many other exiles
may have themselves incorporated aspects of Salafi Wahhabi thought
which they initially did not subscribe to. This remains a possibility that
cannot be ruled out. An examination of the Syrian sheikh’s writings
reveals clearly that he incorporated aspects of the Salafi Wahhabi tradi-
tion, given his references to several Najdi scholars. Saudi Sahwis remain
74 Contesting the Saudi State

autonomous agents who can mix and match rather than blindly follow
this Syrian Salafi sheikh, or any other foreign sheikh.
On a rainy London morning, Sheikh Muhammd Surur received me in
the company of his young son. After a couple of hours, a friend and a col-
league of the sheikh joined us. I had already asked the sheikh whether he
would allow me to interview him. When I assured him that the interview
would not be used for media purposes but was part of an academic study,
he agreed. The sheikh was an imposing old man with a long Salafi beard.
He wore what appeared to be a Saudi thawb (white dress) and ghutra
(white headcover) which hung down on his shoulders without the tradi-
tional black uqal (tying rope), an attire very different from that worn by
traditional Levantine religious scholars. All items of clothing indicated a
strong association with Salafism rather than the Muslim Brotherhood.
The sheikh wore the symbols of an intellectual stand and a religious iden-
tity. A sense of wisdom and serenity emanated from him as he talked to
me about his experience in Saudi Arabia, always avoiding eye-contact, in
fulfilment of ghadh al-basar (lowering the gaze) in the presence of a
woman. In the context of cosmopolitan London, he could be mistaken for
an oriental mystic or sage. However, he was far removed from mysticism.
The sheikh was grounded in the real world, and fully conversant in its
affairs. He combined religious knowledge with an ability to deal with
current affairs. He runs a publishing house in Birmingham and a website.
He left his homeland in Hawran (Syria) under political pressure, and
moved to Buraydah in 1965. In 1973 he went to Kuwait, then moved to
London in 1983. He later moved between London and Birmingham. In
2004–5 he left London permanently, and moved to Amman. Muhammad
Surur is a transnational Salafi sheikh par excellence. He may move and
build encapsulated niches around himself, but does not aim to integrate
himself in the wider culture in which he finds himself.24
The sheikh’s assessment of the relationship with Saudi ulama since the
1960s highlights a process whereby ‘we influenced them and they influ-
enced us’, which is probably a more accurate description than the one
often acknowledged by outside observers. He holds a high opinion of
Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Abd al-Latif Al-Shaykh (d. 1969),
mentioned in the last chapter. He values the independence of this Saudi
mufti, maintained because he was not ‘an employee of the government’.
He was a responsible man. Even King Faysal, who was the strongest of all
Saudi kings, used to fear him. When he died Saudi Arabia did not have a
mufti for almost twenty-five years. People wanted to divide and distribute
Ibn Ibrahim’s heritage. In the early 1990s Ibn Baz became a mufti but he
was not like Ibn Ibrahim. After Ibn Ibrahim the mufti became an
employee of the government.’25
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 75

According to Sheikh Muhammad Surur, the independence of the

ulama should be protected and cherished. This protection can be
achieved through the establishment of what he calls jamiat al-ulama, an
ulama association that is not subservient to the state. He adds: ‘This
association must have financial independence and must be in control of
endowments. But the state does not want this. It wants to control every-
thing. The ulama association should be different from hayat kibar
al-ulama, the Council of Senior ulama.’ On the obligation to obey the
ruler, Sheikh Muhammad Surur believes that rebelling against a ruler
with the sword (khuruj bi l-sayf) is fitna, a cause for discord among
Muslims. He argues: ‘I was against Jihadi movements that fought Arab
regimes because they precipitate internal struggle. But I am also against
formulating an Islam that suits the ruler.’26
The sheikh distinguishes between two types of Salafiyya, preferring to
call them hizb al-wulat (loyalists) and hizb al-ghulat (radicals). He posi-
tions himself as a Wasati, a free Centrist, an affiliation that became promi-
nent in Saudi Arabia after 11 September, as we shall see later.

Hizb al-wulat, the loyalists, believe in unconditional obedience to [those] whom

they consider to be rulers of Muslims. Their followers are chaotic; they are inca-
pable of controlling their members except in obeying the ruler. In Saudi Arabia,
the loyalists appeared after the Gulf War [1990] and their main preoccupation is
to destroy the real callers for Salafi thought. They work hard to spy on free ulama
and report them to the authorities. Their sheikh is Rabi al-Madkhali. He uses the
name Qutbi and Sururi to refer to all those who disagree with him. We cannot dis-
tinguish between al-Madkhali and the policies of his government. The loyalists
denounce all those denounced by the government. This party claims that the
princes know better and politics is their own business only. The loyalists accuse
other Salafis of ignoring the call for tawhid and focusing more on hakimiyya
[rule of God], which they claim led to political dissent and confrontation with
the rulers.27

The sheikh distances himself from hizb al-ghulat. Here he distinguishes

between the ancient radicalism that plagued Islamic civilisation (for
example the Kharijites) and the new contemporary manifestations of rad-
icalism. What concerns us here is the new radicalism, described by the
sheikh as a product of prisons, torture and oppression of Muslims. He
details cases of oppression in Syrian and Egyptian prisons to conclude
that these cases encouraged radicalism, and outlines the characteristics of
the radicals: they shed the of blood of their opponents; they are not quali-
fied to issue fatwas; and they monopolise truth and interpretation.
Contemporary radicals are young and inexperienced men. They are
distinguished by an ability to recite Quran and Hadith without serious
reflection on their meanings. They use violence indiscriminately, blowing
76 Contesting the Saudi State

up Muslim civilians and attacking the ulama who challenge their inter-
pretations. The sheikh laments the polarisation of the Muslim commu-
nity between the loyalists and the radicals.
In one of his publications, Sheikh Muhammad Surur defends the
concern with hakimiyya (sovereignty, rule of God) by referring to
the work of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. According to Sheikh
Muhammad Surur, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab regarded those who
prefer the rule of taghut as kafirs. He asks whether ‘the loyalists are aware
of Muhammad ibn Ibrahim’s epistle in which he stated that the rule of
sharia is an aspect of worshipping God alone. It is the struggle where
swords have been used.’28
According to the Syrian sheikh, Saudi loyalists condemned the free
Wasati Salafis. Asked about the future of ulama in Saudi Arabia, he
declared that ‘Sheikh Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-Awdah are the
future generation, the real ulama’. They must resist the conspiracies of
the sultan. On the rule of the sultan, the sheikh writes:
The sultan is mischievous. He uses his intelligence services and his resources to
lure the ulama. He offers them important posts and promises to work with them
to initiate reform. After the ulama fall in his hand, they become accustomed to
seeing sins. They redefine the forbidden and the permissible. They accuse all
those who disagree with them. They call his opponents Kharijites, innovators,
radicals and terrorists.29
Sheikh Muhammad Surur says that the sultan’s ulama should follow the
example of those who resist political authority. He cites examples of early
pious ulama, such as Abu Hanifa, Malik ibn Anas, Sufyan al-Thawri,
Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Imam Bukhari, Imam Nawawi, and al-Iz ibn Abd al-
Salam, and says that contemporary ulama should be informed by Ibn
Taymiyya’s famous statement, ‘I am a man of religion not a man of state,’
thus emphasising that the ulama’s main concern should be loyalty to
faith rather than state. The sheikh encourages participation in elections,
although he himself has no interest in directly participating in the political
process. He remains an alim.
The sheikh places himself between the loyalists and the radicals, a
position which is adopted by some Saudi Sahwis. The central feature of
his approach is the combination of aqida (creed) and a serious engage-
ment with politics and public affairs. This means that if ever there is a
Sururi trend, it will be distinguished by a vigorous commitment to
Islamic creed and practices combined with political involvement. This is
contrasted with two other trends: the official Wahhabi tradition, which
concerned itself primarily with creed rather than politics; and the tradi-
tional Muslim Brotherhood, which is primarily concerned with politics
rather than the purification of faith and the enforcement of orthodoxy.
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 77

Sheikh Muhammad Surur combines creed with politics, thus revolution-

ising both traditional Salafiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood.30

11 September: an accused and divided Sahwa

As the two most famous Sahwis, Sheikhs Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-
Awdah, were released from prison in 1999, they and their followers were
caught between loyalty to call and loyalty to state. The first required dis-
avowing the abominable in public. The second demanded an acquiescent
position, in practice amounting to either withdrawal from public life or a
positive sanctioning of government policies. As Sahwi sheikhs they con-
tinued to believe in their duty to change the world by action, including the
spoken and written word. The world they thought was in need of change
was not only social but also political. The experience of prison granted
the sheikhs a glorious status in the eyes of their followers. Those Sahwis
who fled the country in the early 1990s, for example Saad al-Faqih and
Muhammad al-Masari, reconstituted their separate movements in exile
but continued to play the role of advocates for the Sahwi sheikhs while the
latter were still in prison. After their release, the Sahwa faced a serious
challenge, represented by the attack on New York and the increase in
Jihadi violence in Saudi Arabia afterwards. After 11 September, Sahwis
were prime suspects. Three groups denounced them: certain princes
within the Saudi regime; the official religious establishment; and Saudi
liberals. When Sahwis publicly condemned Jihadi violence inside Saudi
Arabia, they incurred the wrath of followers of this trend.
Minister of Interior Prince Nayef accused the Muslim Brotherhood
variant of the Sahwis of standing behind the violence in Saudi Arabia. He
repeatedly claimed that the inspiration for violence is alien to Saudi
Arabia. According to Prince Nayef, violence is imported from Egypt by
those who were welcomed in Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. A member of the
Shura Council, Muhammad al-Zulfa, repeated the prince’s accusation.
He argued that the Muslim Brotherhood introduced radical Islam into
Saudi Arabia in the 1960s, a rather surprising comment by a historian.31
The governor of Asir, Prince Khalid al-Faysal, directly accused the
Sahwis of being responsible for the ‘new religious trend’, which generated
violence in recent years. In several newspaper articles and television inter-
views, he made it clear that ‘the extremist ideology is alien to us. It spread
in schools, mosques, and everywhere. In our schools and mosques there
are young men who deliver sermons as though they are senior clerics.’32 In
a speech given in Abha, the prince claimed that those who are now
calling for Wasatiyya, the middle path, are ‘the very ones who dissemi-
nated the thought of Sayyid Qutb and al-Mawdudi, and they are among
78 Contesting the Saudi State

the students of Muhammad Qutb.33 Many senior princes capitalised on

the events of 11 September and later local violence to condemn Sahwa
and settle old scores. This was to be expected, as the regime could not tol-
erate any intellectual or religious trend that questions its policy or threat-
ens its survival. However, we should not take individual princely attacks
on Sahwa to be representative of the government’s position.
In response to 11 September, official Wahhabis redefined the meaning
of ‘Sahwa’ in terms of increased religiosity in the public sphere and more
commitment to ritualistic Islam, thus emptying Sahwa of its most obvious
meaning: political activism that reaches beyond religious rituals. Official
Wahhabiyya, which had always regarded Sahwis as either competitors or
adversaries, was quick to issue its own condemnation. A senior scholar,
Sheikh Abdulmuhsin al-Obaykan, had his own views on the Sahwis. He
reiterated that violence is a product of alien ideas that have dominated
Saudi Arabia’s intellectual field.34 He disseminated these ideas on the
pages of the London-based Saudi newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat. In 2005
a Saudi Salafi sheikh, Musa al-Abdulaziz, argued that the Muslim
Brotherhood conspired to ruin Saudi Arabia’s amicable relations with the
USA when they attacked New York and enlisted Saudis for the attack. He
praised Saudi liberals whom he described as closer to the spirit of Islam
than Sahwis, especially the Qutbis. He chose to denounce Sahwis in the
context of an interview broadcast on a liberal Saudi-owned satellite
channel.35 Another well-known religious scholar, Rabi al-Madkhali, who
had always been hostile to Sahwis, argued that ‘Sahwis (Ikhwanis and
Qutbis) are more dangerous than the kafir groups fought by Muhammad
ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the eighteenth century. Qutbis disguise themselves
under the label Salafiyya but they are worst than the obvious kafirs.
Muslims cannot be deceived by real kafirs but they are deceived by those
innovators who lead people astray.’36 This is a typical position that draws
on early Wahhabi religious texts, which always insisted that other so-called
Muslims are worse than the kafirs of Quraysh. Al-Madkhali and his fol-
lowers resorted to lectures and tapes to propagate their message against
Sahwis. The attack on New York, which resulted in Western media
becoming increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia, along with local violence,
freed traditional Salafis from any constraint when attacking those who are
their brothers in creed but opponents in political orientation.
Many Saudi writers joined in the denunciation of Sahwa and its advo-
cates. After 11 September, the most critical voices were those of ex-
Sahwis, who ‘revised’ their views and began to distance themselves from
radicalism. After 11 September, the catchphrase among Saudi Islamists
was tarajuat, reconsideration of previous opinions, thus invoking the
same phenomenon that dominated the Egyptian Islamist scene almost a
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 79

decade ago.37 After several years of flirting with radicalism and excommu-
nicating other Muslims, well-known figures who had spent time in prison,
such as Mansur al-Noqaydan and Mishari al-Thaydi, moved from radi-
calism to calling for a reconsideration of Sahwa, and even Wahhabi doc-
trine, while still under the age of thirty. They published their revised
positions in both traditional and new media. Western media quickly
adopted their stories and hailed them as brave and courageous men who
shed radicalism and terrorism.38 Inside the country, they incurred the
wrath of several groups, including, of course, their ex-comrades. Against
official rhetoric blaming ‘foreign Muslim Brotherhood’ influence on
young Saudis, al-Noqaydan wrote that radicalism is a local product and
had nothing to do with alien ideas. He argued that violent Jihadis draw
not on Muhmmad Qutb, Abu Ala al-Mawdudi or Hasan al-Banna but on
Ibn Hanbal, Ibn Taymiyya and Najdi scholars such as Ibn Abd al-
Wahhab, Ibn Sahman and Ibn Atiq. He concluded that radical thought is
in fact rooted in Saudi Arabia.39
Locally, in an article entitled ‘Sururis and Jihadis: The Raging Wolf and
the Buried Snake’, Khalid al-Ghannami, a young writer recently turned
to liberalism, argues that the two Sahwi trends (Jihadis and Ikhwanis) are
related intellectually ‘but one prefers to kill openly while the other
remains hidden until it is safe to emerge from its hole’.40 This was one of
the most direct accusations against Sururi Sahwis, holding them respon-
sible for the spread of violence, radicalism and intolerance among the
youth of the country. Al-Ghannami claims that Sururis are dormant tak-
firis (practising excommunication of other Muslims), although they do
not call for armed rebellion – at least openly – against the rulers or those
who differ from them. He claims that they differ from violent takfiris,
those who resort to the sword. The latter tend to be simple and young,
and have no detailed knowledge of religion except for memorising verses
of the Quran and the Prophet’s tradition. However, those ignorant young
men are easily converted back to the right path, as they are loosely organ-
ised and tend to operate alone without an umbrella organisation. In the
author’s opinion, Sururis are the womb that produces violent individuals.
He compares the movement to a snake hiding in a hole.
Another author, Saud al-Qahtani, argues that ‘Sahwis were able to con-
struct Islamic discourse relating to political, social, psychological, and
intellectual matters’. This was beyond the ability of traditional Wahhabi
ulama. Sahwis were loyal to the religious dimension of Wahhabiyya but
disloyal to its political views. According to this author, Sahwi preaching
eroded the concept of obedience to wali al-amr and encouraged rebel-
lion.41 Al-Qahtani identified the most important aspect of Sahwa as its
rejection of the absolute obedience to rulers promoted by Sheikh ibn Baz.
80 Contesting the Saudi State

He argued that Sahwis remained Wahhabis in their creed but in their

political views they adopted the Ikhwani intellectual activist heritage.42 In
his opinion Sahwa is an unofficial political party, independent and hege-
monic. He described it as a new church, monopolising religious interpre-
tation and demonising its opponents.
One of the most scathing attacks on Sahwa was voiced by Muhammad
ibn Abd al-Latif al-Shaykh, who argued that ‘official Wahhabiyya is a call
that resulted in the birth of the Islamic state. Traditional Wahhabis
protect the state whereas Sahwis destroy it. The first manipulates reli-
gious texts to support the state while the latter manipulates religious texts
to destroy it.’43 Official Wahhabiyya is seen here as a religious interpreta-
tion that promotes the state and builds a nation, whereas Sahwa is pre-
sented as a discourse of destruction, fragmentation and discord. Today
official discourse tries to convince the world that Wahhabiyya is a tradi-
tion of tolerance and respect while the alien Sahwi ideas are a religion of
violence and confrontation. Some scholars in the West adopt this official
Saudi discourse.
These accusations, however, ignore the complexity of the process by
which various Sahwi Islamist groups can be classified and how their dis-
course can easily change in response to political contexts. Sahwis draw on
a complex and fluid religio-political discourse that generated several sub-
groups, at any one time agreeing on some issues and differing on others.
Western scholarship on Saudi Islamists, however, continues to search for
neat categories with the hope of identifying groups that easily fit ready-
made labels such as ‘traditional’, ‘radical’, ‘moderate’, ‘reformist’,
‘Islamo-liberal’, ‘rejectionist’, ’Jihadi’ and others.44 The Saudi Islamist
field proved to be both diverse and difficult to classify. As long as open
and organised groups are forbidden, Sahwis will remain difficult to iden-
tify as belonging to clear-cut political parties and organisations. Sahwism
is a fluid philosophy that responds rapidly to changing local and interna-
tional politics. As such, individuals can easily situate themselves in one
category while retaining the ability to move between groups. Moreover,
any attempt to situate Islamist political discourse in one tradition –
Wahhabi, Ikhwani, Qutbi, Salafi Jihadi or any other – proves to be a futile
attempt in the search for origins. While Saudi Arabia had its own religio-
political discourse, it influenced and was influenced by several other
Accusations and counter-accusations mirror a witch-hunt that must be
understood in the context of international politics and official Saudi
attempts to absolve the regime and its Wahhabi foundation from any
responsibility for terrorism. The regime obviously seeks to establish not
only its innocence but also that of its religious establishment. In February
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 81

2005, the regime took the lead in organising an international counter-

terrorism conference, depicting itself as a victim of terrorism in a desper-
ate attempt to dispel the accusations of sponsoring or harbouring
terrorists that erupted in Western media after 11 September.45 Any
outside accusation is often portrayed by the regime as an onslaught on
Islam, in an attempt to dilute the criticism and rally support from a wide
constituency. By so doing, it mobilises nationalism and religious senti-
ments in its own support. Outspoken princes and officials deny that there
is such a thing called Wahhabiyya and therefore that Wahhabi discourse
can be responsible for violence.
While these accusations did not subside in the years that followed 11
September, a new, more important, development began to crystallise. In
order to survive the wave of demonisation, the Sahwis had to prove their
innocence. In Saudi Arabia, there was only one way to do so.

Sahwa: from contestation to co-optation

The events of 11 September coincided with a weak and discredited
official Wahhabi establishment that had just lost two of its most important
figures, who had dominated religious discourse for almost half a
century. Sheikh Abdulaziz Ibn Baz, the grand mufti, and Muhammad al-
Uthaymin, a member of the Council of Senior Ulama, died of old age
in 1999 and 2001 respectively. The government appointed Sheikh
Abdulaziz Al-Shaykh as grand mufti. However, it was obvious that the
new mufti had neither the intellectual vigour nor the prestige enjoyed by
Ibn Baz prior to his two most controversial fatwas, the 1990 fatwa legit-
imising the invitation to foreign troops and the 1993 one legitimising
peace with Israel. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the official
Wahhabi establishment seemed weak, fragmented and less credible. It
had lost its monopoly over religious knowledge with the advent of the
modern university and the appearance of multiple religious interpreta-
tions. It retained the support of the regime, and in return it supported the
regime. Yet there emerged a religious vacuum ready to be occupied.
Although senior princes attacked Sahwis in public, the regime enlisted
famous Sahwis to perform two tasks – one intellectual and one practical.
The first involved preaching the religious discourse that denounced
Jihadis as activists who failed to understand the meaning of jihad. The
second task involved negotiating with Jihadis in the hopes of delivering
them to the regime. Sahwi figures ‘volunteered’ to bring back those who
had gone astray, mainly Jihadis who used violence against the state and
people. Only famous Sahwi scholars such as Safar al-Hawali and Salman
al-Awdah were able to play the double role of preaching against violence
82 Contesting the Saudi State

and neutralising violent actors. Less prominent famous Sahwis became

so co-opted by the regime that they lost the credibility among their own
followers, let alone their ex-comrades, to play any significant role. Others
removed themselves from the public eye.
If the 1990s were years of contestation, the twenty-first century started
with Sahwis moving towards mediation. Far from losing their popularity
after prison, Sahwis remained active in two domains, one domestic and
one international.

The domestic political front

At the domestic level, the state is aware of the continuing popularity of
famous Sahwi sheikhs, whom it imprisoned almost a decade ago. Such
sheikhs were younger than members of the religious establishment, more
accessible and more engaged with current affairs. Most importantly, they
were not so obviously connected to government bureaucracy. In order to
be rehabilitated after release from prison, Sahwis, both sheikhs and intel-
lectuals, showed good intentions by pursuing the official agenda. The
agenda was to defeat Jihadis, condemn violence and praise the regime – or
at least abstain from criticising it. In the official view, it was assumed that
Sahwis were ‘so close’ to Jihadis ideologically that they could be enlisted
in pacifying them and delivering them to the state. The Sahwis had no
choice but to succumb to government pressure and deliver.
As popular quasi-‘independent’ ulama, al-Hawali and al-Awdah served
the agenda of the government in an efficient way while aiming to be reha-
bilitated after the years of confrontation with the regime. Today a quasi-
independent and loosely organised Sahwi establishment serves the state
better as a result of its relative freedom. At the same time the government
realised that it is beneficial to maintain two religious establishments, one
traditional and one Sahwi, thus upholding the divide-and-rule principle. It
seems that the state can accommodate two religious establishments only if
they are both willing to serve its own interests. After 11 September, the
state wanted to mobilise both establishments against the common enemy,
the Jihadis and the Islamist opposition abroad, both sprung out of the
awakening itself.
Both al-Hawali and al-Awdah are Salafi sheikhs who accept the credal
aspects of Wahhabiyya and the sanctity of Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab but may have reservations on whether the contemporary Saudi
state is still faithful to his teachings. Both went further than the traditional
Wahhabi scholars were prepared to go. Sahwi sheikhs retained the
Wahhabi interpretation of creed but combined it with political activism. In
this way, they can be considered closer to the ideas of Sheikh Muhammad
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 83

Surur than to official Wahhabiyya. They were distinct from their Wahhabi
masters not in matters related to creed but in practice.
It is important to note that Sahwis’ relationship with the government
and the Wahhabi establishment went through a period of contestation
(1990–4), imprisonment (1994–9) and co-optation (from 1999). The
first and second phases are well documented.46 Sahwis initially avoided
confrontation with the religious establishment until around the time of
the Gulf War in 1990–1. After that, they generally refused to accept the
legitimacy of the fatwa initiated by Ibn Baz in 1990 sanctioning the invita-
tion of foreign troops to defend the country and his 1993 fatwa legitimis-
ing peace with Israel. As Sahwis adopted a defiant, anti-American mood
and critical position vis-à-vis the government, they were imprisoned. We
should focus here on the third phase, which followed their release from
prison in 1999.
After 11 September and the wave of violence that swept Saudi cities, it
was clear that leading Sahwis were put on the defensive. At this critical
time, the relationship between the government and Sahwis was charac-
terised by mutual interdependence. With the accusations continuing,
Sahwis distanced themselves not only from the global discourse of Osama
bin Laden and local Jihadi ideologues, but also from dissident Saudi
Islamists abroad. Immediately after one of the most devastating terrorist
attacks, in May 2003, al-Hawali, al-Awdah and many other Sahwi sheikhs
issued a statement condemning the attacks and denouncing the Jihadis as
ignorant and misguided young men. It has since become routine to issue
such statements after every terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
As the government issued its terrorist wanted lists – three lists were
released by June 2005 – Sahwi sheikhs called upon Jihadis to give them-
selves up and avoid further bloodshed and discord.
In order to absolve themselves from any responsibility for the resur-
gence of jihad and Jihadis, Sahwi sheikhs endeavoured to issue clarifica-
tion statements in which they defined the Sahwi position on jihad. On
Salman al-Awdah’s Islamtoday website, an article appeared in which the
author explains the position of Sahwa on this important Islamic obliga-
tion. The author argued that jihad is one of the most noble duties, and
Jihadi education is a legitimate obligation that must be performed by
Muslims. He added: ‘No Sahwi abandoned this obligation. In fact they
are proud of calling for it and are passionate about it. However, Sahwis
distinguish between jihad as a value and a principle and its application on
the ground in countries like Egypt, Algeria and especially Saudi Arabia.’47
Sahwis clearly stated that violence in Saudi Arabia under the slogan
‘removing infidels from the Arabian Peninsula’, which became the motto
of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, is illegitimate. On the same
84 Contesting the Saudi State

website, Sheikh Abd al-Wahab al-Turayry clarifies this motto, which rests
on a famous Prophetic Hadith, the subject of great discussion in the fol-
lowing two chapters. He asserts that this is an authentic and strong
Hadith attributed to the Prophet. He argues that the Prophet did not
object to the physical presence of Jews and Christians in the Arabian
Peninsula, but that he ordered Muslims not to allow them to make
this region their permanent home or abode. Their presence should be
temporary/accidental (tari). This temporary presence should be sub-
jected to contractual arrangement, and in return infidels should be given
peace. This Hadith should not be interpreted as a licence to kill infidels
and shed their blood. Removing them does not mean killing them. Also
the Prophetic tradition is not addressed to ordinary people but to wulat
al-amr, leaders of the community who are required to act in this situation.
Al-Turayry reminds his readers not to allow their anger and frustration
over Western injustices against Muslims to let them misinterpret the
sayings of the Prophet. He warns young Muslims that the presence of infi-
dels was accepted by early knowledgeable ulama (including Muhammad
ibn Ibrahim, Abdulaziz ibn Baz and Muhammad ibn Uthaymin), who
better understand the meaning of the Hadith. Their tradition should be
followed, he concludes.48 This interpretation, as we shall see later in this
book, is contested by Jihadis. Here the Sahwi sheikh takes away the
responsibility for removing infidels from the Peninsula from the hands of
ordinary Muslims and makes it the sole prerogative of the ruler, thus con-
firming official Wahhabi views that ‘al-umara alam bi al-maslaha’
(princes know better).
Sahwis are aware that in the public sphere they are ‘mistakenly consid-
ered to be the political wing of Jihadi movements and those calling for
armed struggle’. They are bitter about the alleged cooperation of the
official religious establishment with Saudi liberals in order to link Sahwis
to the violent Jihadis. However, in the context of Saudi Arabia today,
Sahwis have had to revise their position and avoid open confrontation not
only with the religious establishment but more importantly with a state
that is willing to deploy all its coercive power against those who disagree
publicly with its policies or put pressure on it to take action it does not
want to take.
Against the background of the most violent years in Saudi history,
Safar al-Hawali launched a campaign ‘to resist aggression’ against
Muslims. He chose the context of an interview for a programme called
Bila hudud (Without Frontiers), with al-Jazeera on 5 November 2003 to
announce ‘al-himla al-alamiyya li muqawamat al-udwan’, an interna-
tional campaign to resist aggression.49 The campaign was initially called
Mecca but later changed its name. In this television programme, the
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 85

sheikh declared that wali al-amr is a father and we are his sons’. The cam-
paign had several stated objectives. It was meant to educate people; resist
aggression using legitimate means; clarify the true spirit of Islam by
showing its humanitarian and moral message; and coordinate social and
governmental efforts to fulfil these objectives. Al-Hawali promised coop-
eration with international institutions that reject injustice and oppression.
There was also a hint that cooperation with international churches and
those who respect Islam is desirable. The campaign also promised to
include other non-Saudi Islamist personalities such as Fahmi Huwaidy
and Muhammad Amara, both Egyptian intellectuals associated with
modernist Islam rather than traditional Salafi thought.
The campaign aimed to curb the spread of violence in Saudi Arabia
and demonstrate loyalty to the regime. Sheikh al-Hawali called upon
Jihadis to give up their weapons and abandon armed struggle. He
declared: ‘We call upon the youth of the country to use the language of
the tongue [words] rather than swords’, and added, ‘We must instruct the
youth to fight the real enemy of the umma.’ The sheikh reminded the
audience that the Saudi government was to announce an initiative accept-
ing negotiation and reconciliation with the hope of granting amnesty to
the youth. He referred to Jihadis as ‘our brothers who belong to the Jihadi
trend’. He said that the success of the campaign was dependent on a
general amnesty, trials for those who torture prisoners, the reinstatement
of those who had been expelled from their jobs and respect for people’s
rights. Al-Hawali offered his religious skills and power of persuasion to
avoid further discord. However, he presented himself as someone who
could ‘negotiate’ on behalf of the government if it would be willing to
treat him appropriately and listen to his own demands. He was not
proposing to play the role of envoy or employee of the regime. His confi-
dence was perhaps based on the backing of Shabab al-Sahwa, the Sahwi
youth movement.
Using his personal popularity, al-Hawali was able to convince a few al-
Qaida suspects such as Ali al-Faqasi to give themselves up to the author-
ities with the hope of amnesty, or at least a lenient sentence. Al-Hawali’s
call to another Jihadi ideologue, Faris al-Zahrani, was, however,
unheeded. As a Ghamdi from al-Baha, al-Hawali used his tribal connec-
tions to lure famous Jihadi ideologues from the same tribe to give them-
selves up after the government promised fair trials to those involved in
violence and amnesty to those without criminal records.
The Saudi government denied that Safar al-Hawali or any other group
played a mediating or negotiating role. The fact that Sahwis were negoti-
ating with Jihadis was, however, confirmed by the spokesman of the cam-
paign, Muhsin al-Awajy, at American Arabic television station al-Hurra
86 Contesting the Saudi State

in May 2004. Al-Awajy justified the government’s denial by saying that

‘governments do not like to admit negotiating with terrorists. They have
their own reasons.’ Many Sahwis argue that had the state given Sahwis
more freedom, recognition and visibility, they would have absorbed the
radical Jihadis before the outbreak of violence. In discussing Jihadi vio-
lence, the Sahwi sheikhs acting as negotiators avoided outright condem-
nation and preferred to describe Jihadis as ‘ignorant young men who
rebel against elders’. This is contrasted with official rhetoric that depicts
Jihadis as ‘criminals’ and ‘thirsty bloodsuckers’. Sahwis hint at the
difficulties they face in their mediation role, which they attribute to the
previous failure of the justice system and its lack of transparency and
Playing the role of mediators involves delivering those who threaten
national security to the state with the hope of scoring political gains.
However, the sheikhs have emphasised the difficulties they face as they try
to convince Jihadis to return to the right path and abandon violence. In the
media, al-Hawali pointed out that the Saudi judiciary is not totally inde-
pendent, a factor that may influence the way Jihadis responds to mediation.
He noted that some judges might be ignorant of the changes that have
swept society. He also announced that some judges might issue sentences
that contradict sharia. Al-Hawali concluded that the Sahwis are seeking
reconciliation between Jihadis and the state as a step towards reform.
While Sahwi sheikhs continued their efforts to bring Jihadis into the
fold, they directed their attention to another group of dissidents who had
sprung from their own ranks. The Movement for Islamic Reform in
Arabia (MIRA), led by Saad al-Faqih, and the Movement for Islamic
Renewal, led by Muhammad al-Masari, both based in London, emerged
as two separate opposition movements out of the Committee for the
Defence of Legitimate Rights in Arabia in the mid-1990s. The two move-
ments had one common denominator: both rejected the Saudi regime
and considered it impossible to reform; both called for the removal of the
regime altogether. The two movements have other significant political
and religious differences, however.
The Movement for Islamic Reform was a product of Sahwa.
Throughout the 1990s it publicised the plight of the imprisoned Sahwi
ulama and their followers. With the outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia
after 11 September, Sahwis launched a demonisation campaign against
MIRA and its director. A previous Sahwi comrade, Muhsin al-Awajy,
took the lead in launching personal attacks on Saad al-Faqih. He never
tired of calling upon al-Faqih to repent and return home. After a success-
ful call for a demonstration in support of respect for human rights and the
freeing of political prisoners in Riyadh in October 2003, Saad al-Faqih
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 87

called from London for several demonstrations to take place in Saudi

cities in December 2004. Sahwi ulama issued a statement against those
‘based abroad who want to undermine our security and prosperity’.
Sahwis adopted the official Wahhabi view condemning demonstrations as
illegitimate political activism. In January 2005 forty-one sheikhs signed a
statement denouncing ‘actions that cause fitna’.
Sahwis demonstrated their good intentions once again when important
figures participated in the National Dialogue Forum, together with
people they had previously regarded as a threat to Islam and Muslims,
mainly Saudi liberals and groups whom they had previously considered
to be outside true Islam, such as Shiis. Sahwi names appeared among
lists of invited participants in several meetings of the National Dialogue
Forum. Several Sahwi signatories endorsed the content of an important
declaration called How We Can Coexist. They reiterated the sanctity of
human life, condemned imposing religion by force, and called for respect
of the other. The declaration emphasised that the United States contin-
ues to dominate the Muslim world, a factor that explains the animosity.
The declaration calls upon the West to ‘realise that most of the Islamic
movements throughout the Muslim world are essentially moderate . . .
We are committed to fighting against terrorism.’50 While this declaration
was definitely targeting the outside world in an attempt to explain and
clarify the position of a wide section of Saudi society, including Sahwis,
other Sahwi efforts were a response to local developments.
One outcome of 11 September is the fact that Wahhabiyya became a
contested religious discourse in its own home and among those who have
been brought up on its teachings. While official Saudi propaganda contin-
ues to deny the very existence of a religious discourse that can be
described as Wahhabi,51 Sahwi ulama, intellectuals and political activists
are currently engaged in an unofficial debate about the Wahhabi move-
ment. In the public sphere there is a serious effort to discuss religious dis-
course, without actually naming this discourse or even referring to the
teachings of Wahhbi ulama over the last 250 years. Such efforts are por-
trayed as attempts to renew religious discourse (tajdid al-khitab al-dini) or
reform social heritage (islah al-mawruth al-ijtimai ), in the context of
‘drying up the wells of terrorism’. This debate remains in great measure
hesitant and superficial in the official public sphere, because it lacks an
open declaration about the sources of terrorism without invoking outside
influences and other foreign agents. A more open and honest debate
flourishes in printed books published outside Saudi Arabia and in inter-
net discussion boards. Only occasionally does a glimpse of this frank and
sometimes daring debate erupt into the official Saudi public sphere. It is
interesting that Sahwis have participated in this debate, now that the
88 Contesting the Saudi State

official Wahhabi establishment has lost some of its credibility. More

importantly, the regime has sanctioned and even adopted ‘revisionist’
In one session of the National Dialogue Forum and after several critical
articles that appeared in the Western press denouncing the Saudi religious
curriculum for spreading hate against the West, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-
Qasim, a young Sahwi who spent some time in prison in the early 1990s,
presented a research paper which tested the hypothesis that the religious
curriculum produced radical young people. A grandson of an important
Salafi Wahhabi religious scholar associated with editing and publishing
the monumental sixteen-volume Wahhabi collection of religious opinions
al-Durar al-saniyya fi al-ajwiba al-najdiyya, al-Qasim presented his evalua-
tion of the curriculum. He had been involved in the establishment of the
Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights and the circulation of the
Memorandum of Advice in the 1990s. In his research paper, al-Qasim
asks, ‘Where is the Fault?’ His response confirms that Saudi religious edu-
cation, which draws heavily on Wahhabi texts and interpretations, falls
short of being appropriate for modern times. The judge does not name
any famous religious scholar whose interpretation is considered inappro-
priate. Yet it is clear that al-Qasim is critical of the official Wahhabi tradi-
tion as it unfolds in the school curriculum. However, in al-Qasim’s
evaluation of the Saudi curriculum, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and
later scholars remain a taboo. His references draw on the various books
used in schools without naming the original sources upon which the cur-
riculum draws. The reader is left to wonder how the curriculum is formu-
lated and who the original intellectual authorities behind the school texts
are. Al-Qasim concludes that ‘it is an exaggeration to claim that our reli-
gious curriculum bears the responsibility for violence against the West. In
fact the faults of the current education poison relations between Muslims
more than between Muslims and non-Muslims.’52 While this is a clear
condemnation of the Saudi religious curriculum, it falls short of appor-
tioning any blame to the original masters and their disciples. Further-
more, al-Qasim could not voice a single word of criticism against the
religio-political discourse or the role of the state in enforcing and financing
this discourse. His assessment of religious education fell short of high-
lighting the contradiction between Saudi religious discourse and the
reality of politics. This policy paper, together with media statements and
other short publications, allowed the ex-Sahwi to redefine himself.
Nowadays, after every terrorist attack, al-Qasim and other Sahwis are
given a platform to denounce violence and renew their allegiance to the
regime. In one interview, he declared: ‘There are problems of corruption
but the royal family represents an equilibrium for stability. It is not in the
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 89

interest of anybody in society to have the state destablised.’53 Today al-

Qasim is regarded as a ‘modernist’ sheikh or as an Islamo-liberal, although
both labels are perhaps likely to be rejected by al-Qasim himself. Other
Sahwis denounced al-Qasim’s assessment of the education curriculum as
misguided and inaccurate. In a long review of al-Qasim’s policy paper,
Sheikh Salman al-Kharashi launched a detailed refutation of the argu-
ment and concluded that any change to the curriculum could be inter-
preted as succumbing to outside pressure and a threat to Islam.
With the taming of their political discourse and the obvious willingness
of Sahwis to work with the government, it seems that the only domain left
in which to express ‘independent’ and ‘defiant’ views was the social and
educational realms. In response to al-Qasim’s assessment paper and the
willingness of the government to change the education curriculum under
what appeared to be American pressure, 156 ulama, the majority of
whom were Sahwis, issued a statement denouncing any attempt to
change or modify religious education.
After 11 September, having lost all ability to resist the regime at the
political level, Sahwis devoted all their attention to resisting social change.
Today Sahwis ‘resist’ by rejecting and obstructing social change, espe-
cially that which they define as ‘coming from abroad’ or which corre-
sponds to Saudi liberal agendas. Some Sahwis have focused their defiance
on two areas: women and minority rights.
The social and political emancipation of Saudi women became the
contested arena between the government and opposition groups. Having
lost their ability to re-enchant politics, Sahwis pursued conservative inter-
pretations of the status of women. Safar al-Hawali issued a religious
opinion after being asked by someone from his home town, al-Baha,
whether girls should be sent to Mecca and Jiddah for higher education, as
al-Baha does not have a university. Al-Hawali answered:
I say what is the benefit of continuing education and what is its value? Girls are
born to become mothers and educators of the future generation. If a woman
stayed at home, did not beautify herself, and performed her religious duties, and
obeyed her husband, she will be the queen in her kingdom. This is true happiness
that all women, including Western fajirat [immoral women], aspire to. Kafirs in
the West are beginning to wake up and provide women with subsidies if they
stayed at home and raised their children. But we are going back on ourselves by
asking women to go out of their houses . . . Working women get tired. They men-
struate every month, they become weak. They have nervous breakdowns. To serve
the nation, women must stay at home. They should not go to Jiddah in search of a
university. The dormitories are full of fasad [corruption] and mixing.54

On another Sahwi website, an opinion on women’s participation in elec-

tions was posted to coincide with the first Saudi municipal elections in
90 Contesting the Saudi State

February 2005. In this first round, Saudi women were completely absent
as candidates and as voters. A Sahwi sheikh responds to a question
regarding whether the old classical baya is comparable to modern elec-
tions and whether women’s participation in offering baya to the Prophet
can be understood today as a way of justifying their participation in
modern elections. The sheikh replies:
Baya is not the same as elections. Early Muslim men and women did not ‘elect’
the Prophet; they believed in his message and his prophecy. They offered baya for
that. I do not know of women who offered baya to the early caliphs as this was not
their business. Elections are concerned with choosing someone to perform a task.
It is a modern phenomenon guided by a special law and place.55
Sahwis appropriated gender relations and positioned themselves as
‘guardians’ of the values and rights of women, a position they share with
Jihadis, as will be demonstrated in the next chapter. The state and the
official religious establishment also appropriate women’s issues, and both
claim to guard the women of the country. Today some Sahwis resist
through adopting a conservative view towards female education, partici-
pation in elections and other matters. Others, like al-Qasim, show greater
flexibility in dealing with women’s issues. Al-Qasim tries to draw a line
between religious rulings and social tradition. He sometimes argues that
religious scholars do not always make that distinction, thus prohibiting
certain issues when there is no clear textual reference or injunction. This
line of analysis is adopted by Sheikh Salman al-Awdah, who for one
month appeared daily on MBC satellite television, to propagate new
interpretations. Al-Awdah is now positioning himself as the rational and
modern voice of Islam in Saudi Arabia. This confirms the view that
Sahwis are political actors before being religious agents.
Sahwis seem to conduct their resistance by adopting a critical stance
vis-à-vis calls for greater recognition of minority rights, which have come
from abroad and from the minorities themselves. The government
seemed responsive to such calls in an attempt to contain potential dissi-
dence. In 2003 a group of Shii activists sent a petition to the crown
prince calling for greater religious freedom, equality and partnership.
Safar al-Hawali wrote a scathing refutation of their demands under an
ironical title. In ‘When the Minority Rules over the Majority’, he states:
In this country Shiis are born Shiis, practise their tradition and die as Shiis.
Nobody asks them to change their beliefs. This is freedom. There are other
minorities that do not call for having a minister or a politician representing them.
The Shiis adopted a tone that seeks revenge not dialogue. They either want a
Shii government that imposes Shiism on all or a secular government that allows
everyone to fight for his religion under the false pretext of freedom. A civil war will
then be imminent. Shiis imply that if not given their rights they will cooperate
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 91

with foreign governments. This reminds us of al-Alqami who was an ally of

foreign invaders and conspired to kill the Abbasid Caliph . . . We are concerned
that Shiis find the right path so that they can escape misery in the afterlife. We
support their worldly demands and they should take these demands to the rele-
vant government agencies. But we should discuss with them the true nature of
monotheism, dissociation from blasphemy and recognition of our four Caliphs.56
Al-Hawali then highlights his concern over Shii claims that they are
deprived and excluded. He argues that if Shiis are poor,
it is because of the exploitation of their own religious scholars who extract one
fifth of their income for their own purposes . . . The people who really deserve to
be given their rights are the people of Tihama, between Jiddah and Yemen [al-
Hawali’s own region], which has a fraction of the services that the Shiis have in
their own area. Succumbing to Shii pressure will lead to other groups, for
example Hijazi Sufis who are now allies of certain ruling families in the Arab
world, to ask for the internationalisation (tadwil) of the Hijaz under the leadership
of the Ashraf, whose claim for leadership together with the tribe of Quraysh, may
be supported by religious texts.57

In denouncing Shii demands, al-Hawali sends a strong warning signal to

the government. He projects these demands as misguided and possibly
directed from abroad to undermine the unity of the Saudi state and even-
tually lead to its disintegration. His references to the possible return of the
rule of the Sharifs and Quraysh touches a very raw nerve in the ruling
family, as the Sharifs of the Hijaz were the major contestants for leader-
ship, not only in the Arabian Peninsula but beyond that. His message is
clear and direct. As a Sahwi, he defends the realm under the banner of the
Al-Saud, and any concessions to so-called religious minorities will no
doubt lead to undesirable consequences. His discourse focuses on other
deprived regions in the north and south, which according to recent
research are subject to exclusion and marginalisation.58
On the domestic front the previous confrontation and contestation
between Sahwis and the government have subsided and given way to
negotiation and mediation. It remains to be seen whether the truce will
hold. Accommodation is definitely maintained while the security situa-
tion is still unstable. More Jihadi violence will no doubt bring the state
and Sahwis closer. Each will try hard to postpone exerting unbearable
pressure on the other.

The regional and international front

Sahwis today face the same fate as the official religious establishment.
They cannot voice serious critical political opinions on domestic issues.
However, they have found enough regional and international fronts to
92 Contesting the Saudi State

re-establish their credibility against the background of co-optation expe-

rienced in the domestic arena.
In order to compensate for their co-optation at home, Sahwis turned
their attention to regional and international conflicts. At the regional
level, they remained faithful to their 1990s anti-American rhetoric
without invoking jihad in Saudi Arabia or removing infidels from the
Arabian Peninsula. The increasingly unfavourable reporting on Saudi
Arabia in the Western media following 11 September was countered
locally by anti-Americanism that dominated most Sahwi publications, as
well as others. Criticising American policies in the Middle East on the
pages of the local Saudi press was mistakenly considered as genuine
‘freedom of expression’. The so-called Riyadh Spring in 2002–3 was
partly about the freedom to criticise the USA rather than the regime.
Sahwis eagerly participated in the denunciation of the USA.
Having curbed their confrontational discourse at home, Sahwis chan-
nelled their Jihadi rhetoric to other hot-spots in the Muslim and Arab
world, of which there were several. Mainstream Sahwis objected to the
attack on Afghanistan and the demise of the Taliban in 2001–2. However,
many did not dare openly support the Taliban or express sympathy for a
state that hosted Osama bin Laden. Scholars who overtly denounced
American aggression against the Taliban proved to belong to the Jihadi
sub-group, mainly associated with sheikhs such as al-Khodayr, al-Oqla
and al-Fahad. Suffice it to say that the majority of mainstream Sahwis
remained silent while warning against providing any logistical help to the
invading American army. As one of the main objectives of the US cam-
paign at the time was to capture Osama bin Laden, many Sahwis kept a
low profile, given the Saudi government’s denunciation of the al-Qaida
leader. Any objection to the campaign would have been immediately
understood as sympathy for Bin Laden. Sahwis restrained themselves at a
time when their reputation was being tested. Some wrote about American
aggression, mainly on the internet, denouncing the killing of Muslims
and glorifying resistance as if to maintain Sahwi reputation among their
followers. Few Sahwi sheikhs issued statements calling upon Muslims to
go for jihad in Afghanistan in a way similar to previous fatwas regarding
jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Famous Sahwi sheikhs had
reservations even on that first experience of jihad.
Many Sahwis had preferred young Muslim men to stay at home and
deal with the deteriorating domestic situation. It was rumoured that
famous Sahwis, for example Safar al-Hawali, opposed the participation of
Saudis in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union while the official
Wahhabi establishment represented by Ibn Baz encouraged it as fard
kifaya (an obligation performed on behalf of the whole community).
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 93

Al-Hawali is known to have warned against the consequences of send-

ing young men to Afghanistan to fight the Russians, pointing out that
Afghanistan was a trap for young Muslims. It is claimed that he antici-
pated the negative outcomes of the Afghan jihad.59
The US occupation of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad in April 2003
proved to be a different matter. Given that the Saudi government was
trying hard to rebuild amicable relations with the USA and recast itself as
a moderate force in the region, Sahwis, by strongly endorsing the anti-war
attitude, proved that they could still embarrass their government.60
Groups including radical Jihadis, Islamist Centrist reformers, religious
scholars and exiled Islamists all advocated a total rejection of the war,
which was condemned with such slogans as a ‘Christian–Zionist imperi-
alist plot’ and a ‘New Crusade’.61 The fragmentation and pluralism of
Sahwa melted away with the collapse of Saddam’s statue in the central
square of Baghdad. At the same time, Sahwi differences disappeared, as
they all shared an overwhelming rejection of Saddam Hussein, seen as the
‘other face of American imperialism’. A famous Sahwi scholar, Nasir al-
Omar, wrote an extended essay entitled, ‘Waylun lil arab min sharin qad
iqtarab’ (Arabs, Beware of an Approaching Evil). He raised seven points
relating to the Iraqi crisis:
1. The war is not between Bush and Saddam or the American govern-
ment and the Bath regime. It is yet another episode in a series of cru-
sades announced by Bush. The first one took place when America
used Saddam to hit Iran, followed by the Gulf War of 1990, followed
by the American invasion of Afghanistan.
2. Our enmity against Saddam and his atheist regime is not a justification
for the war.
3. The war on Iraq is an unjust crime and Sunni Iraqis will bear the heav-
iest loss.
4. It is an Islamic obligation to support our brothers in Iraq rather than
support the regime.
5. A serious disaster stems from the relationship between the Muslim
umma and its illegitimate governments, which have supported
American interests throughout the modern period.
6. The responsibility for resisting this invasion falls on Muslims, who
should abandon their preoccupation with trivial matters and concen-
trate on the real issue – that is, resisting the invasion.
7. American strategic plans for the Muslim world are long term. America
will use all means available to dominate the Muslim world. Therefore,
Muslims should resist by applying all means, including education,
military confrontation, economic pressure and social and psychologi-
cal force.62
94 Contesting the Saudi State

Saudi Sahwis issued a joint declaration whose signatories included

Muslim scholars and professionals from Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen,
Morocco and Palestine. The declaration summarised their position:

America’s objective in this war is to destroy the Muslim identity of the region and
replace it with American culture. America seeks to control the economic wealth of
the country to cover up its failure in Afghanistan. It also aims to occupy the region
with more war and unrest to protect the security of Israel and destroy the
Palestinian uprising.63

The overwhelming Islamist consensus concealed latent divisions within

the outspoken groups. Sahwis asked whether the Saudi government and
the established religious scholars would issue a fatwa supporting jihad in
Iraq, thus bringing to mind their position during the liberation of
Afghanistan from the Soviet Union. Hardline Islamists, often working
abroad or clandestinely, exposed contradictions in the official Saudi posi-
tion and among the established ulama, none of whom called publicly for
a jihad in Iraq. Throughout the Iraqi crisis the official religious establish-
ment refused to give a religious legitimacy to resistance in Iraq. Sahwis
were disappointed as several official religious scholars declared that the
violence against civilians in Iraq is not jihad, and should be denounced as
fitna. This did not deter Sahwis, who were enraged by the level of
American aggression against the Sunni cities of Iraq, from issuing their
own fatwa.
In November 2004 and with American troops tightening their grip over
the Iraqi city of Falluja, twenty-six ulama, mainly Sahwis, issued a state-
ment denouncing American aggression and legitimising resistance by
calling it jihad. The list of signatories included famous names such as
Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Awdah, Nasir al-Omar, Sulayman al-
Rushudi, Said al-Ghamdi and Awadh al-Qarni.64 The statement, entitled
‘Saudi Ulama Letter Regarding Jihad in Falluja and published on several
Sahwi websites, classified resistance in Iraq as jihad dafi (defensive jihad),
an obligation that is incumbent on every capable Iraqi male. The signato-
ries clarified that this jihad does not need to be fought under the banner of
a known leader, as each individual must take the initiative and resist
foreign domination. The statement also called upon Iraqis, both Sunnis
and Shiis, to unite and avoid the disintegration of the country. Jihadis are
advised to protect innocent civilians and their property. The statement
urged Iraqis not to cooperate with the US army and to protect Jihadis.
Sahwi sheikh Salman al-Awdah openly declared that Iraqis must resist
foreign occupation, but issued clear statements against Saudi participa-
tion in the Iraqi resistance. He called it a legitimate Islamic duty that is
also sanctioned by international law.65 He added that Iraqis should
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 95

physically help the resistance while the rest of the Arab and Muslim world
must support this effort in other ways, for example in international
forums. However, al-Awdah advised against Saudi men joining the jihad
in Iraq. He argued that if non-Iraqis participate in this jihad, they may
cause chaos because of lack of coordination. Foreign Jihadis might have
agendas that are not compatible with local concerns and orientations.
Jihad in Iraq must have a clear objective, i.e. throwing out foreign occupa-
tion. Those who have grand objectives such as establishing a Muslim
polity or reviving the caliphate are dreaming.
Was Sahwi denunciation of the American occupation of Iraq a hesitant
attempt to regain credibility after a period of acquiescence – even sub-
servience – to the regime? Sahwi sheikh Safar al-Hawali still commands
respect among his followers. In June 2005 he was admitted to hospital in
Mecca after a serious stroke. He was later transferred to a hospital in
Jiddah. His illness coincided with King Fahd’s admission to hospital after
several years of ill health. Saudi internet sites were preoccupied with the
illness of the Sahwi sheikh, while the King’s deteriorating health went
almost unnoticed. Prince Sultan (since 2005 Crown Prince) offered to
send Sheikh al-Hawali abroad for treatment. After years in prison and a
long time as a ‘suspect’, Sheikh Safar was ‘rehabilitated’ by the regime. It
remains to be seen whether his illness will precipitate a complete with-
drawal from public life. It seems unlikely that the sheikh will be able to
resume his normal activities. There is no doubt, however, that his legacy
will continue to inspire many Saudis. Safar al-Hawali will go down in
history as the Ghamdi sheikh who was truly caught between the state and
the call. He will also be remembered as a sheikh who penetrated the circle
of aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya despite sharing neither the geography nor
the genealogy of this group. Al-Hawali honoured the intellectual heritage
of the early Wahhabis but had serious reservations about his contempo-
raries, especially those directly tied to government agendas. The state
broke his will but failed to undermine his popularity among his followers

A triumphant or bitter and twisted Sahwa?

Sahwi ulama such as Safar al-Hawali and Salman al-Awdah were able to
retreat into their sharia knowledge and protect themselves against further
loss of credibility resulting from increasing association with government
agendas. After all, they can claim that they are men of religion rather than
men of state. Regardless of whether it was acquired in a traditional setting
or a modern university, religious knowledge still commands respect in
Saudi Arabia.
96 Contesting the Saudi State

By 2005 most Sahwi activists seemed to be enjoying far more freedom

than they had had in the early 1990s. They have gained access to media
channels, and some Sahwi groups have their own satellite television, elec-
tronic newsletters, discussion boards and other communication channels.
After almost a decade of confrontation, Sahwis and the state reached a
modus vivendi. Sahwis accepted the old schism between the secular state
and the religious coterie. They retreated into their educational pro-
grammes, thus socialising society into Islam while leaving politics to the
government. Today they concentrate on healing society and its ills. In a
manner reminiscent of their mentors, the official Wahhbi establishment,
they blame society’s ignorance, tribalism, corruption, regionalism, oppor-
tunism and other negative traits for social problems. While a previous
generation of ulama reprimanded society for exhibiting shirk (blasphemy
and heterodoxy), today the same society is condemned for allegedly
immersing itself in modern sins resulting from either its traditional social
organisation (tribalism) or its enthusiasm for Westernisation and modern
innovations. Sahwis have moved from blaming the regime for the ills of
society to blaming society itself, as a way out of a dilemma. Reforming
society is today an alternative to reforming the state. But can society be
reformed according to Sahwi agenda without fundamental political
change? After all, their early 1990 petitions demanded an overhaul of the
Saudi political system rather than the transformation of society. Will a
reformed society take the lead in establishing the rightful polity that
Sahwis aspire to? Many Sahwis believe that reforming each part (the indi-
vidual) of society will lead to a better whole. While this logic is sound, it
cannot be taken for granted that such a reformed society will automati-
cally lead to a reformed pious Islamic state.
When Sahwis venture into domestic politics, their rhetoric is general
and ambiguous. Today they criticise ‘all Arab regimes’, when they really
mean the Saudi one. Sahwis started out with an attempt to re-enchant
politics, but they failed miserably. They have readjusted their rhetoric in
response to a local and international context that considers revolutionary
political change a kind of terrorism. While Sahwis never admit that they
have changed their position on several important issues, it is obvious that
they have. They have increased their visibility as a group while individual
members are co-opted and rewarded. Today Sahwis call for Islamising
society and applying sharia, but refrain from criticising the government
for introducing new legislation or removing judicial decisions in certain
areas from the hands of sharia courts. In Saudi Arabia, there are several
legal systems, each applying to an area of public life. While personal law
remains in the hands of sharia courts, the economy and the media are
dealt with according to new legislation, often referred to as nidham.
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 97

Sahwis call for reform in Saudi Arabia but condemn any attempt to exert
pressure on the government through demonstrations or public criticism.
They condemn America’s aggression against Muslims, but never hint
that the Saudi royal family is one of the Arab and Muslim regimes most
loyal to the power they define as the ‘aggressor’. They celebrate a transna-
tional Islam while respecting national boundaries. They glorify the
Muslim umma, which is bound only by religious bonds, but unwillingly
accept man-made national boundaries. In their rhetoric, the establish-
ment of a Muslim polity is an unrealistic dream, and so is armed struggle
against the so-called enemies of Islam. In the present circumstances, the
imbalance in power between Muslims and the ‘dominating’ nations
requires Sahwis to resist aggression by non-violent means. In return,
Sahwis have gained the trust of the regime. They are no longer the first
enemy. The Jihadis, together with other peaceful Islamists abroad, occupy
this position.
Sahwis are more vocal when they launch verbal attacks on the West,
especially the United States. The latter gave them plenty of opportunities
in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. The American
media’s negative portrayal of Saudi Arabia and its religious education
required a counter-campaign to resist the various manifestations of
‘outside aggression’. Sahwis retained the language of the ‘crusades’ and
the ‘clash of civilisations’. They gave ‘independent’ opinions on jihad
abroad and volunteered fatwas that made it compulsory in ‘occupied ter-
ritories’ but forbade it in their own homeland. They distinguished
between ‘killing Americans’ in Iraq and slaughtering them in Saudi
Arabia. They sanctioned Iraqi men fighting the occupiers but had reser-
vations regarding Saudi men travelling to the battlefield. As public figures
who were given the green light to express opinions, Sahwis were inter-
viewed by the international media, including the CNN, BBC, Reuters
and AFP. They presented themselves and were presented as the Islamists
of Saudi Arabia. Sahwi sheikhs formed a quasi-independent religious
establishment – more accurately a church in waiting. Some have argued
that the Sahwa was able to ‘impose’ itself on the government. This has
manifested itself in government recognition of Sahwi figures, who now
enjoy more freedom to express the ‘diluted’ statements mentioned above.
Others see the Sahwa as a co-opted movement that has succumbed to
government pressure without any obvious gains – for example, achieving
aspects of the reform they called for in their famous 1990 Memorandum
of Advice.
With the accommodation between Sahwa and state, Sahwi intellectuals
are perhaps less fortunate than Sahwi ulama. Some of those who count
themselves as Sahwi Islamic intellectuals seem to be less able to withstand
98 Contesting the Saudi State

the price not only of changing their views but of openly supporting gov-
ernment agendas. The pragmatism shown by Sahwi activists – some
would say opportunism – could not be justified on the grounds of revising
religious texts or offering new interpretations. After all, the ulama are
known to be mujtahids (entitled to give individual opinions) – if they for-
mulate a wrong opinion, they are granted one reward; if they are right,
they are granted two rewards, according to the Prophetic tradition. This
statement is not extended to include Sahwi activists, whose change of
views and accommodation – and even support – of government can only
be interpreted as political manoeuvring, pragmatism and opportunism.
To avoid being labelled opportunistic or pragmatic, some Sahwi activists
have retreated from the public eye, choosing a quietist position. Others
have become unashamedly entangled with the regime while launching a
bitter campaign against their ex-comrades.
One example was Sahwi Muhsin al-Awajy, who today not only defends
Sahwa against its enemies, but also defends the state. A specialist in agri-
culture and holder of a doctorate in this subject from a British university,
he is different from the famous Sahwi sheikhs. His regular appearances in
the media, his website and his various articles have gradually eroded a
symbolic capital, gained as a result of having been a political activist
involved in the work that led to the release of the Memorandum of Advice
and the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in Arabia in the
early 1990s. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison but released after
four years. He lost his university job and had his passport confiscated.
After 11 September, he emerged as an unofficial spokesman of the
Sahwa – but also of the government. Between 2004 and 2005, al-Awajy
specialised in launching personal attacks on a whole range of activists,
Sahwis and liberals, both men and women.66 As he claimed to be involved
in ‘negotiating with Jihadis’, he appeared on Arab satellite television,
especially al-Jazeera, to comment on government success in pacifying ter-
rorists, dismantling violent cells, negotiating with Jihadis, and praised
official wisdom in dealing with the security problem. Al-Awajy played the
role of the unofficial spokesman of the Ministry of Interior. While the
government imprisoned several Saudi intellectuals, activists and religious
scholars who volunteered comments on al-Jazeera without permission, he
had official approval.67 When Saudi human rights activists and lawyers
criticised the government’s record on freedom of expression, al-Awajy
praised the regime for its understanding and tolerance. He labelled all
those who call for reform from abroad as either agents of Western domi-
nation, corrupted liberals or revenge-seeking persons determined to
undermine the umma’s security and prosperity.68 Regarding those who
call for reform from within Saudi Arabia, al-Awajy proposes sorting out
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 99

the real reformers from those who undermine religion and state. Several
days after the government sent Abdullah al-Hamid, Matruk al-Falih, and
Ali al-Damini, three reformers associated with calls for constitutional
monarchy, to prison for writing petitions that al-Awajy himself had
signed, he wrote in the local press: ‘We denounce those who have contacts
with foreign powers especially the crusades. We must choose the hell of
our own society rather than the heaven of the colonialists.’69 Al-Awajy
repeated the government’s accusations against the three imprisoned
While in his media statements and publications, al-Awajy claims to be
close to Sheikh al-Hawali, the latter in an interview hinted at a personal
dispute between them, which al-Hawali prefers to leave buried. Has the
main pillar of the Sahwa disowned al-Awajy? Or is al-Hawali’s response a
way of reprimanding a follower who has gone a bit too far? It is impossible
to know as long as al-Hawali remains silent. Al-Awajy’s constant refer-
ences to Sheikh al-Hawali and his invocation of the name of this religious
scholar are desperate attempts to regain some kind of legitimacy and
recognition at a time when his credibility was seriously eroded. While
some Sahwi religious scholars retained some kind of dignity deriving
from their religious capital, al-Awajy represents the section of Sahwa that
has become ‘bitter and twisted’.
In 2001 al-Awajy set up a website called al-Wasatiyya. He posts his
articles on this site, which has a discussion board dealing with social,
religious, political and contemporary affairs. Al-Awajy’s website allows
the posting of serious criticism of the Wahhabi tradition, discussion of
minority-related matters, criticism of the royal family and other contro-
versial issues. It does not, however, seem to be very popular. After reason-
able success in 2001–2, it seems to have lost much of its credibility. Topics
on the site do not change regularly, while the number of visitors at any
particular moment remains small compared to other Saudi-run websites
and discussion boards. Al-Awajy’s articles dealing with domestic issues
receive mixed responses, including some highly negative personal
comments about him. His domestic articles receive damning comments
on other Islamist and liberal discussion boards. Publications that glorify
Jihadi resistance to the American occupation of Iraq are positively
received. Those articles dealing with foreign matters appear as a desper-
ate attempt to regain some of the lost credibility on the domestic front. In
Saudi Arabia, like much of the Arab and Muslim world, denouncing
American policies, especially neo-conservative strategies, is always hailed
as an honest and brave position, a cathartic mechanism that guarantees
positive responses among a population that is still deprived of freedom to
evaluate the policies of its own government.
100 Contesting the Saudi State

One might argue that the mixed responses to al-Awajy’s views are only
natural, as Saudis are just beginning to learn how to voice their opinions
in the public sphere after years without any dissident voices or frank eval-
uation of public figures. However, in al-Awajy’s case, mixed responses are
symptomatic of many negative developments that the Sahwa is trying
hard to contain. It seems that there are numerous specific reasons behind
the mixed responses that al-Awajy has received. As a Sahwi he incurs the
wrath of both Saudi liberals and the official Wahhabi establishment. The
latter became more critical as he began to voice criticism of the Wahhabi
tradition under the guise of ‘renewing religious discourse’, a cliche catch-
phrase that masks criticism of official Wahhabiyya without naming it. As
an ex-Sahwi, al-Awajy must have had reservations about the official reli-
gious discourse that created consenting subjects. However, as he went
further in his criticism to accommodate moderate or less conservative
views on society, women and the Shii minority, he incurred the wrath of
not only the Wahhabi establishment but also his own Sahwi comrades.
When he condemned Jihadi violence in his articles, he incurred a severe
blow from Jihadis themselves, who denounced him in a long treatise pub-
lished in al-Qaida electronic journals and discussion boards.70 When he
publicly condemned his closest Sahwi comrades outside Saudi Arabia, he
revealed an opportunism that was linked to his close relations with the
regime. Today al-Awajy’s controversial and ambiguous status among
various groups in Saudi society is symptomatic of the problems faced
by Sahwi activists as they were drawn into government agenda. Loss of
credibility at a time when no obvious gains were visible was bound
to accompany Sahwa’s shift from confrontation with the regime to
accommodation, and an ongoing co-optation. A Saudi commentator on
al-Awajy’s latest transformation argues: ‘Al-Awajy burnt all his boats. He
is standing all alone on the sandy shores of hope. He disowned Wahhabis
and they disowned him. He was disowned by terrorists who rejected his
mediation. One terrorist described him as the fertiliser specialist [a refer-
ence to al-Awajy’s doctorate in agriculture], a crow who leads people to
the corpse.’71
While ‘burning all boats’ accompanied co-optation by the government,
other Sahwis have gradually drifted towards the Jihadi trend. The story of
Lewis Atiyat Allah in this book is an example of a Sahwi who abandoned
Sahwa in favour of the Jihadis. Other Sahwis abandoned the local variant
of the awakening in favour of other Saudi Islamists abroad. A third group
preferred to move out of Islamism altogether and join Saudi liberals,
becoming examples of ‘courageous and brave revisionists’ who enjoy
reading Martin Luther King and other enlightened characters. Under
state oppression and co-optation, the Sahwa fragmented.
Sahwis from contestation to co-optation 101

In June 2005, while Sheikh Safar al-Hawali was fighting for his life in a
Jiddah hospital, the government announced its third list of wanted terror-
ists. Immediately, another Sahwi sheikh, Salman al-Awdah, stepped into
the vacuum. He called upon the suspects to give themselves up in a
manner reminiscent of Safar’s approach. The Sahwa was confirmed in its
new mediating role.
It remains to be seen whether Sahwi ulama will be crowned as the new
religious establishment that will dominate the Saudi religio-political field
in the twenty-first century. However, it seems that the Sahwa serves the
regime better if it remains outside the circle of official religio-political
discourse. Perhaps the state has realised that it is more beneficial to keep
two religious establishments. An official one can curb Sahwi influence by
resorting to the old conviction relating to the obligation to obey rulers
and advise them privately. The official religious establishment remains
in control of the courts that may in the future deal with dissident
Sahwis and others. It remains important for the socialisation of the next
generation of acquiescent subjects. On the other hand, an unofficial
Sahwi establishment can mediate between the state and Jihadis, absorb
social unrest among the youth, and channel local revolutionary senti-
ments abroad.
After 11 September Sahwa began to devour its own children. It might
seem that the earlier contestation which gave way to co-optation led to the
state being the obvious winner while the official religious establishment
was the obvious loser. However, the Saudi scene is more complicated
than that, and is less likely to generate clear-cut boundaries between
winners and losers. Sahwi ulama initially sought the blessing of official
ulama, but later they competed with them. The official ulama seem to
have lost their monopoly not only over religious interpretation but also
the hearts and minds of many young Saudis, while remaining in control of
a huge religious bureaucracy including education and the judiciary. It
seems that the Saudi regime is grooming Sahwi sheikh Salman al-Awdah
to rise to eminence, with the help of pan-Arab media, mostly sponsored
by Saudi money.72
3 Struggling in the way of God abroad: from
localism to transnationalism

It was the right thing for Saudi Arabia to send Jihadis to Afghanistan. All
Saudi Jihadis came back in 1992. They were nice people. We did not
have takfiris in Saudi Arabia. Takfiris were all produced in Afghanistan.
The worst among them are in London. The likes of Abu Hamza, Abu
Qatada and al-Masari are the worst ones.
Jamal Khashogji, spokesman for Prince Turki al-Faysal, Saudi ambassador in
Washington (Idhaat, al-Arabiyya TV Channel, 14 September 2005)

He was young, enjoying his seventeenth spring when he told his mother
that he is going to Afghanistan. She begged him not to go but he always
said, it is fard ayn . . . it is fard ayn. Sheikh Muhsin issued him a fatwa
that he did not need his father’s permission because it is jihad dafi to
defend Muslims against an aggressive enemy.
Year later the mother turned the radio off as Sheikh Muhsin was
instructing parents to protect their children and prevent them from
going to those places where they learn to excommunicate rulers.
Mr Jamil was talking on television about terrorism and Jihadis. Years
ago he went to support Jihad in Afghanistan. One of the girls watching
the television show spat on this jasus (spy). Ahmad said that Mr Jamil
was clandestinely spying on the Jihadis while pretending to be a volun-
tary aid worker. Muhammad al-Hodhayf, Nuqtat taftish

To say that Saudi Arabia was a zone free of takfiris, a label that is used
to describe those who excommunicate others (as individuals or en
masse), implying an uncompromising Islamic position, is an unconvinc-
ing statement. As mentioned earlier, the Saudi regime itself was founded
on ‘excommunicating other Muslims’, an exercise in demonising the
population of Arabia – mainly all those Muslims who resisted its hege-
mony. Saudi official ulama, under state patronage, have practised takfir
al-mujtama (the excommunication of a whole society) since the eigh-
teenth century. The early letters of aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya attest to a
strong tradition of denouncing other Muslims. Yet throughout their
history, the aima refrained from excommunicating specific rulers,
descendants of the Al-Saud. On one occasion, one Saudi ruler was

Struggling in the way of God abroad 103

described as baghi (usurper), rather than kafir, when he sought help from
the Ottomans against his brother in the 1870s.1 Similarly, the Ikhwan
rebels of the 1920s fell short of describing Ibn Saud as kafir.2 In 1979
Juhayman al-Otaybi did not excommunicate specific Saudi rulers,
although he declared the regime as a whole a kafir regime.
As Wahhabi religious discourse travelled to Afghanistan and other des-
tinations, it carried with it the practice of excommunication. While con-
temporary Islamists (for example, Egyptian Jihadis)3 had already
developed such theological positions, Saudis had their own contribution
to make. In 1979, Juhayman al-Otaybi’s movement was clearly a local tra-
dition rather than an import from other Islamist movements. The Afghan
experience only sharpened the Saudi takfiri tradition. In Afghanistan
takfir was used against those who initially theorised it: the official Saudi
ulama and their sponsors, the Al-Saud. Saudis did not need to travel to
Afghanistan to ‘learn’ the discourse of excommunication. They carried it
with them. In Afghanistan, they simply applied it to their own rulers.
Before Wahhabi discourse could be refined, or even freed from the
domination of the state, it travelled to distant locations very different
from its original habitat. Not even the influx of Muslim scholars to Saudi
Arabia in the 1960s, the majority of whom arrived as immigrants or state
guests delivering sermons in prestigious government-sponsored Islamic
conferences and universities, provided sufficient conditions for its uni-
versalisation. Saudi religious discourse travelled to Africa, Europe, Asia
and North America. This transnationalisation took place in times of both
peace and war. It is important to emphasise that this transnationalisation
was initially dependent on Arabs and Muslims, who were either sent
from Saudi Arabia itself or were inhabitants of these foreign destinations.
In the 1980s the situation became slightly different with the maturation
of a literate Saudi ‘religious’ generation that was sent abroad to spread
the call.
At this juncture Saudi religio-political discourse was severely inhibited
by its overwhelming parochialism, which meant that it lacked a universal
orientation, and its premature transnationalisation under the auspices of
the modern state meant that it did not find an easy reception out of Saudi
Arabia. Most Saudi religious scholars never travel abroad, and not a single
one rose to international eminence and gained recognition among
Muslims worldwide, despite massive resources. (Egypt, for example, pro-
duced ulama who gained pan-Islamic reputations; the contemporary
Egyptian Sheikh Yusif al-Qardawi is perhaps a late addition to the list.)
Only with oil wealth did Saudi religious scholars achieve eminence abroad.
Moreover, Wahhabi discourse failed to engage with the intellectual and
political problems that occupied Muslim scholars, thinkers and activists
104 Contesting the Saudi State

throughout the twentieth century. It was very much concerned with ritual-
istic aspects of worship at the expense of developing universal messages or
responses to the challenges of modernity, apart from prohibiting or permit-
ting the use of some technological innovations. Under the patronage of the
state the Wahhabi tradition failed to tackle issues related to social justice,
the role of women and minorities, the Islamic state, political consultation,
elections and participation. These remained taboo topics. Wahhabi dis-
course excelled in theorising the confrontation with the ‘infidel’ West,
rejection of other Islamic traditions (for example other Sunni interpreta-
tions and those of the Shiis) and glorification of the concept of jihad,
without being able to put its theories into practice inside the country.
The transnationalisation of Saudi religious discourse created a volatile
situation, with dramatic consequences not only for Saudis but also for the
receiving societies. The discourse of exclusion and demonisation of other
Muslims and ‘infidels’ developed by Saudi official ulama, while extre-
mely important for mobilising Jihadis in a war situation, proved disas-
trous in times of peace elsewhere.
The premature transnationalisation of Saudi religious discourse
involved the worldwide propagation of local Saudi religious interpreta-
tions. These are the intellectual product of people with genealogical links
to aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya, the majority of whom were and are drawn
from the oases and towns of central Arabia, especially Qasim and the area
around Riyadh. Most of the so-called higher ulama had never travelled
outside Saudi Arabia, and many of those who occupied the highest posts
were blind, a handicap that could not be overcome in a world dominated
by images and visual media.4 Being blind is not necessarily a serious dis-
advantage, but it added to the parochialism and localism of this dis-
course. Although this discourse is founded on the assumption that it is an
embodiment of the universal tradition of ahl al-sunna wa l-jamaa, it
failed to develop beyond its localism. It should not be forgotten that part
of this localism was related to the fact that the discourse grew in the
shadow of a political power desperate for legitimacy. From its early days,
creating consenting subjects and legitimising the status quo left their
marks on this religious tradition. When Wahhabi religio-political dis-
course began to be transnationalised in the last decades of the twentieth
century, it travelled with its potential for both consent and contestation.
Both at home and abroad, it carried the seeds of its own mutation.

A critical year: 1979

After the defeat of Egypt in 1967, Saudi Arabia enjoyed a short period of
being seen as the centre of the Arab Islamic world. Its newly acquired
Struggling in the way of God abroad 105

wealth, religious rhetoric and the symbolism of its geography created the
conditions for the country’s pre-eminence. After a long period of claim-
ing the special status of a pious Islamic state, Saudi Arabia was able to
impose itself on the Arab–Islamic scene thanks to its wealth. President
Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, a move against Arab consensus at the
time, facilitated Saudi Arabia’s triumphant rhetoric as the guardian not
only of the two holy mosques but also Muslim interests worldwide. In the
Arab world, Egypt was no longer a competitor. After Sadat’s visit to
Israel, the Saudi regime crowned itself as the sole defender of Arab and
Muslim causes. This monopoly proved to be short-lived.
In 1979 Saudi Arabia faced the challenge of Iran, which, after the revo-
lution, was ruled by mullahs who, like the Saudi noblesse détat, claimed to
apply the sharia and defend Islam and Muslim causes. However, while
Iranian mullahs became the state itself, their Saudi counterparts accepted
a ‘secretive advisory role’, under the patronage of the state. Jealous of
their counterparts in Iran, Saudi Sahwis asked for a greater role, which
led to confrontation with the regime by the early 1990s. Iran, whose Shii
tradition had always been denounced by Saudi ulama, became a com-
petitor. Saudi Arabia and Iran struggled to win the hearts of Muslims;
each paid vast sums to promote religious literature that denounced the
other. Both competed to sponsor religious education, mosques, Islamic
conferences and other highly visible projects outside their territories.
Sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shiis had always been divisive
in Islamic history, but from now on the politicisation of sectarian identi-
ties in Saudi Arabia as well as in the Gulf, Pakistan, India and other
Muslim areas became more visible and volatile, thanks to Saudi and
Iranian interventions. The 1980s were known as the decade of increased
sectarian tension, which the Saudi–Iranian political rivalry only aggra-
vated. Iranian revolutionary rhetoric denounced ‘imperialists and their
agents’ in the Muslim world. The Saudi regime felt the pressure. While
Saudi religious discourse denounced Western infidels, the Saudi leader-
ship was moving closer towards Western agenda. Its own Eastern
Province Shii community rioted and demanded equality and recogni-
tion.5 While these riots were severely suppressed, the danger from Iran
took a new dimension with the onset of the Iran–Iraq War. The American
intervention in Iraq in 2003 exacerbated the confrontation.
The year 1979 also saw Islam and Muslims ‘being humiliated’ by the
forces of atheism in a Sunni-majority country. The Soviet Union, long
branded the enemy of Muslims in Saudi official religious rhetoric, occu-
pied Afghanistan. The occupation of a Muslim country by ‘infidels’
offered Saudi Arabia a golden opportunity to consolidate its reputation as
defender of faith and the faithful. While the liberation of Afghanistan
106 Contesting the Saudi State

from Soviet occupation was a Western goal, adopted by the USA and its
allies in the context of the Cold War, it inevitably became a Saudi project.
The USA had always defined the danger for Saudi Arabia as coming from
Communist Russia. A Saudi religio-political discourse that glorified jihad
al-dafi (a struggle to defend Muslims against aggressors) but had had to
be content with theory rather than practice since1932, was now given an
opportunity to redirect religious zeal abroad.
A chilling message was sent to the Saudi regime with Juhayman al-
Otaybi’s seizure of the Mecca mosque in 1979: the regime was no longer
Islamic, at least in the eyes of the small group who took sanctuary in
Mecca.6 Instead of continuing the tradition of jihad against infidels,
Juhayman accused the regime of cooperating with infidels, introducing
their ways of life into the country and promoting peaceful relations with
them – all actions that were considered a violation and a nullification of
faith. Juhayman’s movement was at the time considered a form of revival
of the discourse of ahl al-hadith and the Saudi Ikhwan tradition.
Juhayman’s discourse was grounded in the Wahhabi tradition. The Saudi
government was taken by surprise by the outburst of fanaticism that
erupted violently in the most sacred of territories. It hoped that redirect-
ing this zeal abroad would be both a confirmation of Saudi religious cre-
dentials and a way to absorb local discontent and contestation. With the
accession of King Fahd – hardly an example of the pious Muslim Rightful
Imam – to the throne in 1982, the Afghan jihad seemed God sent. It
became a political strategy for turbulent times.
Transnationalising Saudi religio-political discourse took place at a crit-
ical historical moment, when three factors, all with the potential of
eroding Saudi religious credentials, pushed Saudi Arabia in that direc-
tion. Iran, Afghanistan and Juhayman sent a wake-up call to the Saudi
regime. The government had to be seen to be supporting Muslim causes.

Struggle in the way of God abroad

Phase 1 (the 1980s): early transnational encounters

The first phase of jihad abroad (1979–89) was perhaps dominated by
Saudis who remained loyal to their sponsors.7 Throughout the
1980s Osama bin Laden was the sheikh of jihad. According to Sheikhs
Ibn Baz and al-Uthaymin, he and other famous Jihadis such as the
Palestinian Abdullah Azzam were true believers who fought the infidel
Communists, and Bin Laden performed the obligation of jihad al-dafi.
When Osama bin Laden was furthering the US–Saudi project in
Afghanistan, he was a ‘nice’ Jihadi, to use Khashogji’s words. In the
Struggling in the way of God abroad 107

1980s, Saudi Jihadis participated in the war to liberate Afghanistan from

atheist Communism under the blessing of several sponsors, including the
Saudi government and the official Wahhabi establishment.
To contain the rising religious enthusiasm of a whole generation of
young Saudis, the government decided to facilitate the export of its own
young subjects to the land of war. Afghanistan became the land where one
sought martyrdom. The highest religious authority, Sheikh Ibn Baz, sanc-
tioned this jihad against Communism: ‘We thank God who is generous.
He allows us to issue a fatwa stating that one should perform jihad in
Afghanistan against the enemies of religion. Muslims from all over the
world came to help, asking for reward and for heaven. Jihad was con-
firmed in its global Islamic image.’8
In an interview published in al-Mujahid, Ibn Baz clearly pronounced
liberating Afghanistan from Soviet domination to be a legitimate jihad,
performed against an infidel state that invaded Muslim territory, and that
all Muslims were under the obligation to support it. He declared it fard
ayn (an obligation incumbent on all Muslims) in Afghanistan and fard
kifaya (an obligation that must be performed by a sufficient number of
other Muslims) elsewhere.9
In addition to jihad in Afghanistan, Ibn Baz clarified the concept of al-
wala wa l-bara, association with Muslims and dissociation from infidels.
In his view this involves loyalty and obedience to pious Muslims and dis-
sociation from infidels, by showing enmity towards them. Hatred and
enmity do not involve injustice towards infidels or attacking them if they
are not fighters.

Hatred and enmity mean to hate them in your heart, never to take them as friends.
Muslims should not hurt them. If they greet you, you should return the greeting.
You should also preach to them and guide them to the Good. Jews and Christians
are people of the book. They should be given aman [peace], unless they do injus-
tice, then they should be punished. One can also give them charity.10

Official ulama provided the theological discourse in support of the jihad

project, disseminating the information in print and visual media and in
sermons. The state promised logistical support and financial resources.
For the regime jihad in Afghanistan was a political strategy rather than a
religious obligation. State support involved various activities ranging
from subsidised air tickets to multi-million-dollar projects in support of
combat operations and relief efforts. It was reported that between 1980
and 1990, Saudi Arabia gave nearly US$4 billion in official aid to Jihadis
in Afghanistan. This figure does not include unofficial aid from
Islamic charities, donations by princes, private funds and mosque collec-
tions. The regime initially relied on already existing Muslim Jihadis and
108 Contesting the Saudi State

charitable networks and leadership, but later created its own network and
personnel. At the beginning of the Afghan jihad,11 Saudi Arabia enlisted
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Afghan long settled in Saudi Arabia, to set up a
pro-Wahhabi Jihadi party, Ittehad-e-Islami (Islamic Unity Party) in
Peshawar.12 Saudi Arabia opened itself to Afghan and Arab Jihadi leaders
to recruit, preach and raise funds in support of expelling the infidels from
the land of Islam. In addition to wealth, globalisation, easy travel and
communication technology created a religious effervescence that was
difficult to control, even by those who had initially planned the process.
Osama bin Laden was key figure. A man of piety and wealth, standing
outside the Saudi tribal system, in debt to the regime for his family’s finan-
cial empire, and truly modern, he was an ideal choice.13 Initially acting on
his own initiative, he put his wealth in the service of the cause. The Saudi
regime, which could not have chosen a strong tribal sheikh with thousands
of followers who might invoke the rhetoric of tribal solidarity in response
to calls for jihad, immediately noticed – and enlisted – him. The regime
perhaps remembered the consequences of mobilising the tribal population
for jihad and using tribal sheikhs to lead the struggle in the early decades of
the twentieth century. Such personalities cannot be easily controlled,
given the potential strength afforded them by their deep roots in society.
The Ikhwan rebellion of 1927 was still alive in the historical imagination of
Saudis. Although the Saudi regime had eliminated the leaders of the rebel-
lion, it took a long time to reconcile with their tribal sections. It could
therefore not tolerate a rising tribal star who could in the future challenge
the rule of the Al-Saud, especially if such a personality had acquired a rep-
utation for defending Islam and Muslims. The Saudi Afghan project was
better served by someone in a state of liminality, a Saudi but not a Saudi,
neither here nor there. These qualities made Osama bin Laden the ideal
choice in the eyes of the Saudi leadership. It must be said, however, that
the qualities that endeared Osama to the Saudi regime in the early 1980s
were his greatest strength in a global Jihadi project. He captured the hearts
and minds of Saudis belonging to different regions, tribes and back-
grounds – in addition, of course, to other Muslims.
Osama bin Laden was able to rise above the localism of aimat al-dawa
al-najdiyya and their parochial discourse, and gain a pan-Islamic reputa-
tion. While not a single Wahhabi scholar gained worldwide eminence in the
pre-oil era, Bin Laden succeeded. This eminence was not a result of high-
level scholarship in religious knowledge or extraordinary military skills, but
rather that, having no obvious roots in Saudi Arabia, Bin Laden was able to
play the role of mediator between various groups. He had his Islamic cre-
dentials and wealth without being associated with one social group. These
qualities made Bin Laden appealing not only to Saudis seeking martyrdom
Struggling in the way of God abroad 109

in Afghanistan but also to other Arabs and Muslims who responded to the
call for jihad.14 Studies of Bin Laden exaggerated his foreignness and mar-
ginality in Saudi society, and downplayed his influence and charisma.15
Events since 2001 have proved the inaccuracy of these evaluations.
Having been guided by Sheikh Ibn Baz’s religious rulings and govern-
ment logistical support, young Saudis left the country, seeking an hon-
ourable death for the cause. Even women, who were excluded from any
public role in Saudi Arabia at the time, enlisted themselves or were
enlisted by their male relatives in the struggle against infidels. It was
reported that wives joined their husbands and engaged in preaching and
charitable work, helping Jihadi female relatives and orphans. Daiyyat
such as Fatimah Nasif and Samira Jamjum travelled to Afghanistan.16
While there is no precise documentation and statistics regarding the exact
number of Saudis who participated in the Afghan war as fighters, a figure
of 30,000 is often cited. However, the number of Saudis who participated
in non-combat capacity – as preachers, recruiters, fundraisers, medical
assistants, charity and relief workers – must have far exceed this figure.
While a substantial number of men were full-time Jihadis, the majority
must have been part timers. It was reported at the time that many Saudi
men visited Afghanistan and Pakistan during the long summer holiday, a
visit that may not have necessarily led to a long-term or full-time commit-
ment. The economic slump of the mid-1980s and the rising unemploy-
ment among young men acted as a push factor. However, redirecting
religious zeal to Afghanistan only delayed the confrontation between the
Saudi regime and its increasingly politicised religious scholars and youth.
Afghanistan offered young, old, middle-aged and wealthy men and
women an opportunity to break the monotony of life at home, where
independent political activism is banned and local leadership is curtailed
by an authoritarian regime that forbids initiative except that which can be
controlled and used in pursuit of its own agenda. Having been subjected
to decades of preaching obedience to rulers who know the ‘public good’,
for the first time in their modern history Saudis were offered the opportu-
nity to engage in political – and even military – activism. Although the
regime boasts about supporting the Palestinian cause and regularly pub-
lishes statistical evidence, the Afghan jihad was a totally different experi-
ence. Although it took place under government supervision and control,
it gathered its own momentum in Afghanistan, and began to free itself
from this control. The Saudi regime succeeded in redirecting political
and military activism abroad, while reviving its own credibility and
legitimacy at home. However, the evolution of the Afghan project proved
more complicated. The transnationalisation of the localised Saudi
religious discourse led to unintended consequences.
110 Contesting the Saudi State

Saudi youth who left for Afghanistan returned with a sense of their
worth and empowerment. Their post-liberation narratives glorified their
heroic role in defeating the forces of atheism. The encounter was
described as the triumph of Islam over Communism, while in the West it
was described as the victory of Western democracies and values over
totalitarian regimes, under the idiom of the ‘end of history’. Young Saudi
men reinvented themselves as ahfad al-sahaba, the descendants (grand-
sons) of the early pious companions of the Prophet. In the twentieth
century, the descendants of the Jihadi Ikhwan who had ‘unified Arabia’
under the banner of Ibn Saud and become ‘consenting subjects’ thanks to
several decades of preaching emerged from the Afghan experience with a
new identity. Sons perpetuated the old glory of their fathers and grandfa-
thers – not in Saudi Arabia this time, but abroad. Doing the same thing in
Palestine remained a project that Saudis dreamt of, but did not under-
take. The young men’s return to Saudi Arabia was to be seen only as isti-
rahat al-muharib, a temporary period of rest after an arduous and most
dangerous but rewarding combat experience. While the majority were
content with this experience, others were restless. They searched for
future similar encounters. Religious imagery was reinvoked and fused
with modern rhetoric, drawing on stories glorifying martyrdom, cama-
raderie, Stinger missiles, near-death situations and miraculous survival.
Those who visited Jihadi relatives in Afghanistan returned to Saudi
Arabia with mythical images glorifying the ‘Vanguards’. In such narra-
tives, myth and reality combined to paint a magnificent heroic narrative.
Young men proved themselves in the battlefield as murabitun ala al-
thughur (fighters for faith who are tied to the fortresses), and gained
recognition that eventually undermined the qaidun, those left behind,
mainly fathers. Images of the ghazu (raid) were documented in poetry
invoking continuity with a glorious Islamic past. In a society where
parental authority – especially that of fathers – is paramount, young men
returned with their own sense of worth achieved as a result of participa-
tion in a real life-threatening experience. They had their own poetry,
composed and learned in distant lands. Their transformation emascu-
lated their fathers, who had already been undermined by the religious dis-
course of acquiescence and the authoritarian state that nourished and
perpetuated this discourse. For the first time since 1932, young Saudi
men proved that they too could be heroes, scoring victories of interna-
tional significance. A deep sense of patriotism and self–worth flourished,
expressed in an Islamic idiom.
Official ulama who theorised jihad and urged Muslims to take part
were from now on heirs of the Prophets (warathat al-anbiya), flames that
kept the message alive. They were reconfirmed in their status as wise
Struggling in the way of God abroad 111

sages who deserve due respect and recognition in this world while God
would reward them in afterlife. Having been patronised and controlled by
the state, they proved that they were capable of mobilising people for a
just cause. They temporarily regained a fraction of their lost glory
as people whose first allegiance is to God rather than the state that
employed them. Ibn Baz, who in 1979 had authorised the storming of the
Holy Mosque in Mecca where Juhayman took refuge, briefly regained his
The regime also emerged triumphant. It glorified its contribution to
Muslim causes. Most importantly, it was able to rebuff Iran’s revolution-
ary rhetoric and accusations. The defeat of Iran and its revolutionary
mullahs was a project that needed to be achieved, not only in the battle-
field where the Iraqi and Iranian armies met, but also in the minds and
hearts of Muslims. Official propaganda depicted Iran as the regime that
fought Iraqi Muslims while the Saudi regime liberated Muslims from evil
Communists. Iran’s Shii faith assumed new political significance. The
ancient Sunni Islamic discourse demonising the Shiis as those who insult
the early caliphs, the descendants of aggressive al-furs (Persians) and blas-
phemous and treacherous Majus, assumed new meaning in the context
of confrontation between the Saudi regime and Iran.17 While Saudis
became the grandsons of the early companions of the Prophets, the Shiis
were the grandsons of al-Alqami – or, even worse, the offspring of muta
(temporary marriage),18 the by-product of adultery in Saudi popular
imagination. Wahhabi religious discourse provided the religious language
that was politicised in the context of rivalry between two states desper-
ately fighting for supremacy in the Muslim world in general, and the Gulf
region in particular. Saudi negative images of Iran and the Shii tradition
resurfaced with the Iraqi crisis in 2003.
In Afghanistan, Wahhabi discourse encountered a plethora of religious
interpretations, schools of Islamic jurisprudence and forms of worship, in
addition to contemporary Islamist political interpretations. It came into
contact with the dominant Deobandi tradition in both Afghanistan and
Pakistan, which was perhaps closer to Wahhabiyya than any other Sunni
tradition in Asia.19 Both Wahhabi and Deobandi traditions had grown up
in the context of the encounter between the Muslim world (the Arabian
Peninsula and India) and Britain. This had shaped the two movements’
outlook and interpretations.
In Saudi Arabia haraki Islam was still an underground movement, in
the form of a revival of faith and more commitment to Islamic appear-
ances. In the early 1980s, Saudi Islamists were preoccupied with resisting
modernity and Westernisation. In Afghanistan, they encountered open
Islamic political activism in the context of a war situation. For the first
112 Contesting the Saudi State

time Saudis had the experience of Islamist political parties and military
groups working openly.
By the time they arrived in Afghanistan, Saudis had already been
exposed at home to current Islamist thought, as discussed in the last
chapter. In addition to the survival of the local Ikhwani tribal tradition
(represented by Juhayman’s followers), Muslim Brotherhood literature
(for example, Bannais, Qutbists), Salafi Jihadis, Hizb al-Tahrir and
Pakistani Islamism – especially that related to Abu Ala al-Mawdudi – had
circulated in Saudi Arabia since the 1970s.20 Yet Saudis had never before
experienced open political activism, rivalry and competition. In the early
1980s Saudi Islamists debated how to resist corrupting Western influ-
ences and guard the authentic tradition against liberal and secularist
Saudis. All Islamist trends operated as underground movements at that
time. In Afghanistan the debate was about how to fight Communist infi-
dels and their local agents. Most importantly, the debate was also about
how to establish the pious Islamic state. Saudis were armed with a reli-
gious discourse that allowed them to achieve the first objective, i.e. resist-
ing infidels through the discourse of jihad al-dafi, but the majority must
have thought they already belonged to a pious state. Nevertheless, the
first Afghan experience allowed Saudis to reflect on their own state, to see
it from a new perspective, one that was changed by the fog of war and the
euphoria of fighting and defeating the enemies of Islam. Questioning the
credentials of their own pious state back home must have occurred to
many Saudi Afghans as it occurred to Juhayman’s followers. Did Saudis
go to Afghanistan to gain military skills that would enable them to create
the pious state upon their return?

Phase 2 (the 1990s): from excommunicating society to

excommunicating rulers
The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 closed the
gates of jihad in this country for both Saudis and other Muslims, thus
marking the end of the first phase.21 Saudi warriors and their leaders
returned home. From now on they were identified as the Saudi Afghans, a
subgroup of the Arab Afghans. Upon arrival at home, they were treated as
heroes who had defeated the Evil Empire. The welcome was, however,
only a passing moment of joy and recognition. While the Jihadi heroic
narratives continued to inflame the imaginations of those who had been
classified as qaidun, a bleak future awaited the returnees. Like other Arab
states, Saudi Arabia had no exit strategy or reception programme to facil-
itate the reintegration of the Saudi Afghans in society. The rising pre-
eminence of Osama bin Laden and his confirmation as the undisputed
Struggling in the way of God abroad 113

sheikh of jihad and the Jihadi fervour that crystallised around young
Saudi Jihadis were carefully watched by the regime.
The second phase was perhaps the most dangerous for the Saudi
regime and its religious establishment. It was during this period that a
transnationalised Saudi–Wahhabi religious discourse turned its attention
to its early mentors, not only to dismantle their monopoly over religious
interpretation but more importantly to challenge the regime that spon-
sored them. This sponsorship is described as leading to a corruption of
the authentic Islamic tradition. In this second phase Osama bin Laden
took the lead in denouncing both the Al-Saud and official ulama. While
Bin Laden was not a religious scholar, he spoke the language of scholars
and fused this language with political rhetoric, thus inflaming the imagi-
nation of both Saudi youth and other Muslims around the world. While
official ulama remained parochial and without a pan-Islamic reputation,
Bin Laden assumed such status.
In 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Osama bin Laden volun-
teered his services and those of his Jihadis to liberate Kuwait and fight the
infidel – Saddam. Having demonstrated his military skills and acquired
new expertise in the mountains and cities of Afghanistan, Bin Laden
thought that he and his followers were better positioned to launch
another jihad close to home; after all, Saddam had already been declared
kafir by Sheikh Ibn Baz. The Saudi regime refused the offer. It was doubt-
ful whether the Jihadi returnees were a match for Saddam’s army, and the
regime preferred an international coalition to liberate Kuwait and protect
the kingdom. Armed with the Council of Senior Ulama’s famous fatwa
legitimising the participation of foreign troops, King Fahd told his sub-
jects that an international coalition of armies would perform the task.
Having ‘defeated’ the infidel Communists in Afghanistan, many Saudis
found it difficult to seek assistance from Western governments to resolve a
conflict between Muslims. Saudi ulama debated the official fatwa issued
by the religious establishment. The previous prestige of the religious
establishment, which had been gained as a result of supporting jihad in
Afghanistan, quickly withered away. Senior ulama lost their credibility –
for ever, this time.
After being put under what amounts to house arrest in Jiddah, Bin
Laden secretly left the country with the help of family members. The
Saudi Afghans dispersed inside Saudi Arabia and abroad, while waiting
for other potential jihad destinations. Kuwait was liberated, but the
foreign – mainly American – troops remained in Saudi Arabia, a fact that
from now on became the axis around which the Islamist opposition to the
Saudi regime revolved in all its shades and orientations. The question that
was theoretical in Afghanistan – the nature of the pious Islamic state and
114 Contesting the Saudi State

its relations with ‘infidels’ – began to be posed in the context of discussing

the Saudi state itself. Osama bin Laden was again a key figure, just at the
time he was stripped of his Saudi nationality (in 1994).
The young Saudi Afghans became fugitives, a pariah group searching
for shelter or another jihad destination. While some followed Bin Laden
to Sudan, the majority remained in Saudi Arabia or travelled to
Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir. Their hero, Osama bin Laden, became
persona non grata in Saudi Arabia. From now on Jihadis were defined as
al-fia al-dhalla (the group that has gone astray). Violent attacks in Riyadh
in 1995 killed many Americans. It was the first major anti-American
action inside Saudi Arabia. In 1996 al-Khobar was bombed. While
nobody claimed responsibility for either attack, it was assumed that Bin
Laden and his Saudi Afghans may have been responsible. Violence con-
firmed the status of the Saudi Afghans as a threat to the regime. In public
it tried to link the violence to Shii dissidents, but without success.
Osama bin Laden was expelled from Sudan, and returned to
Afghanistan after the rise of the Taliban regime in 1996. Although Saudi
Arabia maintained friendly relations with the Taliban and promised sub-
stantial aid, the regime initially did not put pressure on the Taliban to
deport Bin Laden. According to Rashid, only when Prince Turki al-
Faysal, in charge of intelligence services at the time, was personally
insulted by Mullah Omar in Kandahar did the Saudis curtail diplomatic
links with the Taliban. In other words, Saudi policy towards this impover-
ished polity was dictated by a personal insult.22 Saudi Arabia withdrew its
recognition of the Taliban only months before the USA launched its
attack on the country in 2001.
Young Saudis followed Bin Laden to Afghanistan. Once again it
became a haven for those who were pursued by the security forces at
home. It is at this time that a religious discourse that is more focused on
the Saudi regime began to emerge. It advocated excommunicating the
regime as a whole, or individual figures within it, or both. Osama bin
Laden’s various speeches and media statements confirmed that he was
working for the overthrow of the Saudi regime, which had brought ‘infi-
dels’ to the Arabian Peninsula against the Prophetic tradition. As we shall
see in the following chapters, this tradition became central in the struggle
of Jihadis against the Saudi regime. By September 2001 Bin Laden had
become the regime’s chief enemy. It was facing one of the most violent
episodes in modern Saudi history, with suicide bombing, confrontation
and shoot-outs between members of the so-called al-fia al-dhalla (the
Jihadis) and security forces.
Osama bin Laden’s activism against the Saudi regime in the 1990s is
now well documented.23 I shall focus on a long speech delivered in
Struggling in the way of God abroad 115

December 2004, in which he outlined his position vis-à-vis the regime and
official ulama. The speech was delivered after several violent attacks shat-
tered peace and security in Saudi cities. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula
claimed responsibility. It was assumed that it had direct links with Bin
Laden. This speech addressed ‘Muslims in bilad al-haramayn [the land of
the two holy mosques] in particular and the Muslim world in general’.24
The speech addresses three categories of people: hukam al-riyadh
(pejoratively the rulers of Riyadh); ahl al-hall wa l-aqd (those who tie and
loose); and Muslims – Bin Laden avoids the term Saudis, as such an arti-
ficial category does not feature in his discourse. In this political speech
there is fusion of Quranic verses, Prophetic sayings, citations from
famous past and present ulama and poetry. It demonises the Saudi
rulers, reprimands official scholars for their acquiescence, exposes
Saudi ‘conspiracies’ against Muslims and defends Jihadi violence in
Saudi Arabia even though it killed Muslims as well as ‘infidels’.
Bin Laden explains why he and the Jihadis practised khuruj ala
al-hakim (rebellion against the ruler), a direct challenge to the Wahhabi
tradition which forbids such rebellion. He explains:
Al-imara [rulership] is a contract between rai [ruler] and raiyya [followers],
which entails rights and obligations on both sides. It can be nullified under certain
conditions. When a ruler commits treason against his religion and people, the
imara is no longer valid. A century ago, the Al-Saud jumped on people’s necks
without their consent or consultation but with British support. Today these rulers
practise oppression and theft of public money. People have woken up from their
sleep. They are determined to take their rights. You, the Al-Saud, have only two
options: first, either return people’s rights to them in a peaceful way and leave the
country to choose a Muslim ruler who rules according to the Book [Quran] and
Sunna [tradition of the Prophet]; or second, refuse to return these rights and con-
tinue to pay your mercenaries to oppress people. Remember what happened to
the shah of Iran and the Romanian president. We in al-Qaida do not compete
with you for worldly privileges but we do not accept that you commit acts that are
considered nawaqidh al-iman [acts that nullify faith], for example ruling not
according to the word of God and subservience to infidels.
According to Bin Laden, the Saudi regime moved from committing maasi
(minor sins) and mubiqat (grave sins) to violating some of the ten princi-
ples of faith when it practised subservience to infidels (tawwali al-kuffar),
and assisted them against Muslims, in Afghanistan (2001 War on Terror)
and Iraq (2003 American occupation). This subservience is a major
theme in local Jihadi discourse, as will be shown in the following chapter.
In Bin Laden’s speech there is no scope for reforming the Al-Saud.
According to him the Al-Saud ‘are part of an international blasphemous
alliance whose main objective is to enslave Muslims’. The theme of sub-
servience to infidels recurs when Bin Laden attacks Crown Prince
116 Contesting the Saudi State

Abdullah, who in 2003 called upon Saddam to step down in order to

prevent a bloodbath in Iraq. In other words, ‘the Crown Prince suggested
that Saddam peacefully hands over Iraq to the Americans. This is the
advice of the arabi amir [the Bedouin prince]’. Bin Laden plays on the
imagery of the ‘arabi’, defined in the Quran as the worst kafir (‘al-arab
ashadu kufran’). He invokes strong Prophetic language when he calls
Prince Abdullah ‘al-ruwaybidha’, an insignificant person who talks about
public affairs. Bin Laden’s rhetoric draws on both the Quran and the
Hadith to project an image of the Saudi leadership as immersed in kufr
Bin Laden asserts that he is not after worldly matters and wealth. He
explains that ‘we left all this behind. We left our land not because we
suffered poverty. We have been away for a long time but we long for the
Hijaz.’ At this juncture he cites a poem demonstrating his longing for this
The love of Hijaz is in the depth of my heart
But its rulers are wolves
I found home and friends in Afghanistan
God is the one who provides a livelihood

His message to ‘those who tie and loose’ includes advice to migrate in
order to liberate the self from
illusory restraints and psychological pressure exerted by the regime. Only then
you can perform your duties, lead the umma and organise its activities. If you delay
this mission, you complicate matters further. Young Jihadis will take the initiative
to interpret texts (ijtihad), in order to justify armed rebellion against rulers. This
must be a joint effort and the ulama must help convince the ruler to step down in
order to avoid further bloodshed.

Bin Laden here reminds the ulama of their role in the early 1960s as
mediators between King Saud and his brother Faysal. According to his
narrative, the ulama convinced King Saud to step down and avoid further
conflict. Bin Laden urges the ulama to play a similar role, this time to
convince the Al-Saud to leave the country to the people. One senses that
in 2004 bin Laden was worried about the proliferation of jihad and its pri-
vatisation in the absence of grass-roots ulama to guide and direct Jihadis.
The violence that erupted in Saudi Arabia in 2003–4 was in need of justi-
fications and theological sanction, both the prerogative of the specialist
ulama. Perhaps Bin Laden’s call to the ulama to take the initiative and
provide guidance stemmed from concern about inexperienced Jihadis
who might go too far in ‘privatising’ the obligation of jihad without central
command or supervision.
Regarding Jihadi violence, Bin Laden asks a series of rhetorical questions.
Struggling in the way of God abroad 117

Who are those who hold the thought that the regime describes as having gone
astray, the so-called contemporary Kharijites? Are they Khalid al-Mihdhar, Salim
al-Mihdhar or Nawaf al-Hazmi, who left Mecca to attack America? Are they King
Fahd, who attacked Mecca with tanks when a small group of Muslims took refuge
in the holy sanctuary? The regime could have negotiated with them [Juhayman’s
group] but the enemy of God, King Fahd, preferred to attack the mosque. I
remember the marks left by tanks on the Haram’s floor and the black smoke
coming out of minarets. Are the Al-Saud the ones who command virtue and pro-
hibit vice or are they the ones who corrupt Muslims using the media? Are they the
ones who defend the honour of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir
or Chechnya? Or are they the ones allied with infidels and those who steal
Muslims’ wealth? Who has violated the sanctity of the Land of the Two Holy
Mosques? Are they the Jihadi youth or the security forces who killed innocent
people in the poor neighbourhood of Rasifah in Mecca so that the land can be
confiscated by the Minister of Interior?

Bin Laden reminds his audience that those who rebelled against the
Ottomans early in the twentieth century, a reference to the Saudi state,
deserve to be called Kharijites. Calling the Wahhabi movement a Khariji
movement echoes early Sunni positions among the ulama of Damascus
and Baghdad, who abhorred the movement’s rebellion against the
Ottoman Empire. He addresses Saudi rulers: ‘Your father Ibn Saud
rebelled against the Ottomans and you yourself rebelled against your
brother Saud. Your ulama never condemned your acts. Let’s remind you
of the massacre in Taif when your people practised takfir al-umum
[excommunicating whole communities]. Your father told his soldiers
that Hijazis were kafirs therefore killing them was jihad.’ Bin Laden
rejects Saudi accusation that he and his followers practise wholesale
excommunication. In fact he tells his audience that the Al-Saud and their
early followers did exactly that in the Hijaz. This language rejects early
Wahhabi discourse that justified the killing of Muslims in the Arabian
Peninsula under the banner of spreading monotheism, according to the
official narrative.
This leads us to question descriptions of Osama bin Laden as a puri-
tanical Wahhabi25 or a ‘product of traditional Saudi Wahhabism’.26 He
does not embrace the official Wahhabi tradition or agree with the state
narrative produced by the ulama who described the population as being
in a state of kufr before the rise of the third Saudi state. Had Bin Laden
been a Wahhabi, he would not have challenged the most important pillar
of the Saudi–Wahhabi foundation myth. He would not have disputed the
right of the Al-Saud to rule over Arabia, a right that was granted to them
by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself. While those who study Bin
Laden’s speeches and statements might describe him as a Wahhabi, we
must see him through the eyes of one of his supporters.
118 Contesting the Saudi State

A Saudi supporter argues that Bin Laden could not possibly be a

Wahhabi. He lists four reasons in support of his opinion. First, ‘Bin
Laden and al-Qaida rebelled against the Al-Saud regime, an act that has
never been performed by Wahhabis. While most Wahhabis would occa-
sionally “criticise” the rightful Imam, hoping to reform him, they would
prohibit advising him in public, let alone carrying arms against him.’
Second, ‘Bin Laden aims to restore the Islamic caliphate while the Al-
Saud and Wahhabis were the first to have undermined the Ottoman
Empire’. Third, ‘al-Qaida and Bin Laden fight only those who under-
mine Islam while the Saudis and Wahhabis fought Muslims who do not
accept their jurisprudence’. And fourth, ‘unlike Wahhabis, Bin Laden
and al-Qaida do not distinguish between the various schools of Islamic
jurisprudence’. The author concludes that Bin Laden did not rebel
against the Saudi regime in order to restore the early Wahhabiyya, which
clearly claims that the Al-Saud must rule Arabia for ever in accordance
with hereditary rule and that the mufti of Saudi Arabia should be a
descendant of Al-Shaykh family. Al-Qaida is ‘wider than the narrow local
Wahhabi tradition, which excelled in dividing rather than uniting
Muslims’. Bin Laden’s supporter asks why today ‘Muslims sanctify
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab who brought the Al-Saud corrupt rulers
to power and considered rebelling against them a form of blasphemy’.27
Bin Laden’s attachment to the Hijaz is clear, especially when he
reminds his audience of the atrocities committed there by Saudi–
Wahhabi forces. It is perhaps more accurate to claim that he was a
product of the context of the Hijaz rather than the narrow, localised
Wahhabi religious tradition of Najd. While the Hijaz was systematically
Wahhabised and Saudised in the twentieth century, the region retained
some of its previous cosmopolitan and pan-Islamic outlook. Bin Laden
himself and the migration of his father to this area attests to this history,
with its deep-rooted transnational connections. In the past the Hijaz
received migrants not only from Hadramawt, Bin Laden’s ancestral land,
but also from distant Muslim territories as far away as Indonesia. These
migrants always brought with them their intellectual traditions, which
were defined and redefined in the holy land as they intermingled with
Muslim scholars who were resident in Mecca and Madina.28 It is the
cross-fertilisation of religious thought in the Hijaz that produced Bin
Laden, who cannot be anchored in one locality or intellectual tradition.
In his quest for the return of the pious Islamic caliphate, with the Hijaz as
its central core, Bin Laden regards Ibn Saud’s rebellion against the
Ottomans under British orders a form of Kharijite behaviour. While
many Muslim scholars doubt whether the Ottoman Empire, especially in
its later years, represented the desired Islamic caliphate, Bin Laden’s
Struggling in the way of God abroad 119

political speech naturally overlooks the body of literature produced by

Muslim scholars who subjected the Ottoman experience to sharia
rulings. Many concluded that it was not only an aberration of the concept
of the caliphate, but was also a system of kufr and innovation.29 Bin Laden
deconstructs one of the fundamental religiously sanctioned myths of the
Saudi state, namely that this is the state of monotheism, which brought
the people of Arabia to true Islam. He claims that the Saudis contributed
to the fall of the Ottoman Empire without replacing it with a legitimate
alternative. While his dream is to establish a caliphate with the Hijaz as its
core, contemporary official Wahhabi discourse has limited ambitions.
Bin Laden has used arms against both the West and the Saudi regime
and has proved that he is capable of inflicting great damage to both. His
influence in Saudi Arabia is often downplayed, for obvious political
reasons. Some argue that his lack of a solid tribal genealogy in the country
prevents him from developing real influence. But perhaps a new genera-
tion of Saudis find this so-called disadvantage his main asset. They may
be truly tired of the rigid tribal hierarchies and grading system that domi-
nate Saudi society, which a priori defines people’s status, privilege and
even financial prospects in a regime that continues to play on tribal divi-
sions. Bin Laden surpassed tribal solidarity groups as he brought a Harbi,
Otaybi, Zahrani and Ghamdi – not to mention Egyptians, Yemenis,
Palestinians and Algerians – together in a joint adventure, not only in
Afghanistan but also elsewhere in the world. It was Bin Laden who chal-
lenged the apartheid system that separated ‘Saudis’ and ‘immigrants’, the
million or so Muslim workers that the Saudi regime struggled to keep
under control and deprive of all rights. Western expatriates enjoyed privi-
leges and rights that Muslim immigrants could only dream of. Bin Laden
himself was a descendant of an exceptional immigrant who managed to
‘assimilate’ while thousands of other Muslim labourers were kept outside
society, confined in segregated residential compounds, if they were pro-
fessionals, or shanty towns that circled Saudi cities. It is surprising that,
given his appeal, some analysts have argued that for the majority of Saudis
Bin Laden was the ‘other’. This may have been true for those ‘inside’ the
Saudi system, but his rhetoric certainly strikes a chord with a growing
marginalised population who lack equal access to resources. Bin Laden
himself was inside this system, but he rebelled against its rigid hierarchies,
nepotism and corruption. He and his wealth represent the shift in Saudi
Arabia from a society dominated by inherited status to one that is gradu-
ally embracing achieved status. Being the ‘other’ seems to have guaran-
teed the survival of Bin Laden’s reputation, if not influence, on young
Saudis – not only in Saudi Arabia, but also elsewhere. In today’s world it
is impossible to measure this influence accurately let alone quantify it.
120 Contesting the Saudi State

Despite hundreds of books and intelligence reports, understanding the

Bin Laden phenomenon is one of the most difficult tasks contemporary
scholars face. It is easy to say that he is a puritanical fanatical Wahhabi. It
is also easy to describe him as a non-Saudi terrorist who fell under the
spell of Egyptian Jihadis, an interpretation which suits the Saudi regime
as it struggles to absolve its own religious establishment from any respon-
sibility for world terrorism. It is not surprising that the Bin Laden
phenomenon is entangled with political polemics rather than sober inter-
pretations of a complex religious and political field, made even more so as
a result of new communication technology, transnationalisation and easy
travel and movement. Bin Laden is an evolving phenomenon and it will
continue to be so in the foreseeable future.

London: contesting Wahhabi religio-political discourse

Contesting Saudi religio-political discourse did not take place only in
Afghanistan. The religio-political literature of rebellion and resistance
against ‘despots’ who corrupt Islam was produced and published in other
places as well, with Muslims of diverse nationalities contributing to its
formulation. In the mid-1990s, London was a refuge for dissident
Islamists facing imprisonment and torture in their own countries. While a
small minority were real Jihadis, trained in the art of using weapons, the
majority were theoreticians and interpreters of jihad, who disseminated
their ideas in a tolerant, ‘connected’ context, with easy access to old and
new media. In the name of freedom of expression, British tolerance and
multiculturalism, the British authorities turned a blind eye to their activi-
ties. This was a political strategy – to watch, control and provide ‘British
Spooks with a great photo opportunity’, in the words of a realist scholar
who is not fooled by spin or rhetoric.
London thus became one of the most important centres of debate over
Saudi religio-political discourse.30 Bin Laden’s envoy Khalid al-Fawaz
established the Advice and Reform Committee there in 1994.31 The
influence of this committee was limited, however, as al-Fawaz was later
imprisoned in Britain. More influential was the counter-theology offering
revolutionary interpretations of the original Wahhabi texts that flourished
in the British capital. Saudi and non-Saudi ulama and political activists
based in London and elsewhere contributed to the production and dis-
semination of this counter-religio-political discourse. London became
the space where the production and distribution of dissident literature
took place. What such activists did in London was not to ‘invent’ radical
discourse or ‘learn’ it, as claimed by Saudi propaganda. Rather, they
turned the original Wahhabi discourse against those who initially spon-
Struggling in the way of God abroad 121

sored and promoted it worldwide. Their aim was to prove that had
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab been alive, he would have excommuni-
cated the current Saudi regime.
This counter-discourse invoked neither the standards of democracy nor
universal human rights. Instead, it reinterpreted the criteria of the Saudi
religious establishment to excommunicate it. Several publications showed
how the regime fell short of complying with its own Wahhabi rhetoric.
In 1994 a book entitled al-Kawashif al-jaliyya fi kufr al-dawla al-
saoudiyya (Clear Evidence of the Blasphemy of the Saudi Regime) by Abu
al-Bara al-Najdi (allegedly an alias for Jordanian Palestinian Abu
Muhammad al-Barqawi al-Maqdisi (b. 1959)), was reprinted in London
by an anonymous publishing house called Dar al-Qasim, thus invoking
the heartland of the Wahhabi tradition. Al-Maqdisi’s case is a clear illus-
tration of how Saudi–Wahhabi religio-political discourse was adopted by
a non-Saudi Islamist, thanks to transnational religious networks, easy
travel, fast communication and the proliferation of Saudi-sponsored
centres of religious education. Rather than bringing an alien Islamic tra-
dition to Saudi Arabia, as claimed by Saudi officials and Western writers,
al-Maqdisi fell under the influence of the religious discourse that origi-
nated in Saudi Arabia.
Al-Maqdisi lived in Kuwait where he frequented Islamist circles until
his deportation to Jordan after the Gulf War of 1990–1. In the mid-1980s
he travelled to Peshawar where he developed a Salafi–Jihadi discourse.
According to several accounts, he visited Madina in the early 1980s,
immediately after the dispersal of Juhayman’s followers. During these
visits, he fell under the influence of Juhayman’s underground supporters.
According to al-Noqaydan, al-Maqdisi also visited Buraydah in Saudi
Arabia in the early 1990s.32 Al-Maqdisi returned to Jordan in the mid-
1990s, and was imprisoned in 1995. In 2005 he was still serving a prison
sentence in a Jordanian prison. He was released for a short period, but
was later returned to prison after an interview with al-Jazeera television.
Al-Maqdisi’s book could have been written by any Salafi sheikh in the
British capital or elsewhere, such as Abu Qatada, another Jordanian of a
Palestinian origin who in 2005 was in Belmarsh prison; or Hizb
al-Tahrir’s Omar Bakri, who returned to Lebanon in 2005 after the 7 July
London bombings; or Abu Hamza al-Masri, a veteran of the Afghan Jihad
who in 2006 was serving a prison sentence in London. It is alleged that
al-Maqdisi’s book circulated in Afghanistan before its republication in
The fact that the author chose a pseudonym ending with al-Najdi
reflected a desire to authenticate this revolutionary theology by anchor-
ing it in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, the land of Wahhabiyya.
122 Contesting the Saudi State

Al-Maqdisi endorsed Wahhabi interpretations and its symbolic attire.

The book relies heavily on citations from the intellectual heritage of
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Bin Laden ordered the writing of this
book in an attempt to bring the struggle closer to Saudi Arabia. Only if
the regime is declared kafir, a declaration that is dependent on religious
evidence, can Saudis rebel with arms against the regime (khuruj bi l-sayf).
The content of the book was drawn from the religious rulings of the early
and latter Wahhabi ulama, thus making it more accessible and acceptable
to Wahhabis themselves. It spoke the words of their own ulama, but the
words were this time turned against the regime itself. The main point was
that by its own Wahhabi theology and standards, the Saudi regime is
guilty of blasphemy. The author wanted his readers to reach the conclu-
sion that had Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab been alive, he would have
issued a fatwa convicting the Al-Saud regime of kufr.
Official ulama ignored the book when it first appeared in 1989, and
continued to do so for almost a decade after its publication. Some
thought that a response would give the book more publicity than it actu-
ally deserves. However, with the outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia in
2003–5, it was reported that many Jihadis had read the book. A pro-
official ulama website called al-Radd (response) published a piece
denouncing the book and deconstructing its theological evidence.33
In the book, Abu al-Bara al-Najdi claims: ‘I am a Sunni Arab Muslim
not a Shii rafidhi [rejectionist] or a Communist.’ This is aimed at shatter-
ing the claims of the regime that criticism comes only from Shii ‘rejec-
tionists’ or atheists. In his words, ‘the regime is blasphemous if judged by
the standards of the early Wahhabi ulama themselves’.34
Abu al-Bara argues that one must distinguish the current Saudi regime
from the early people who carried the flame of monotheism under the
banner of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. One must also distinguish
between the evil, subservient ulama of today and Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab, whose teachings they claim to follow.
The book starts with the epic of the Ikhwan fighters, the foot-soldiers of
Ibn Saud. The author narrates a history that glorifies those fighters and
demonises Ibn Saud, the ‘symbol of conspiracy and subservience to
Britain at the time’. He moves on to identify the characteristics of the
blasphemous regime that evolved in the twentieth century. It does not
apply Islamic law, maintains amicable and subservient relations with infi-
dels, plunders public wealth, cooperates with Gulf and Arab tawaghit
(despots) against their own Muslim population and joins international
kufr organisations, for example the United Nations and other regional
and international forums.
Struggling in the way of God abroad 123

The author argues that the regime introduces new legislation (nidham)
to replace sharia. He reminds his readers of Muhammad ibn Ibrahim’s
epistle (Tahkim and qawanin), in which he condemned the introduction of
new legislation that contradicts, or has no grounding in, sharia. He claims
that the suspension of sharia punishment (iqamat al-hudud) is characteris-
tic of the blasphemous regime, and reminds his readers of Sheikh
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim, who wrote to the king demanding the sacking of
a judge in Yanbo for smoking: ‘It became clear to us that the qadi smokes
in the court. He delays people’s cases. The maslaha [public good] requires
that he is forced to resign. We hope that your majesty complies.’35
The grave sins of the regime must be remedied. Abu al-Bara introduces
a ‘way out of discord’ (makhraj min al-fitna). He asks, ‘What is to be
done?’ The solution proposed is that put forward by the Wahhabi estab-
lishment several decades ago, namely hijra (migration) and jihad, citing
two Quranic verses, one urging Muslims to migrate, the other instructing
them to perform jihad. The latter suggestion is justified on the basis that
Muslims were urged by the Prophet to kill if they witnessed kufran
bawahan, clear and obvious blasphemy that can be documented with evi-
dence. Abu al-Bara warns Muslims not to be deceived by those who
declare that there is no God but Allah. A Muslim must dissociate himself
not only from all action that is potentially blasphemous but also from sub-
servience to others. At this junction, he introduces citations from aimat
al-dawa al-najdiyya, who urged people to excommunicate the blasphe-
mous, fight them and rebel against them, starting with the words of
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif, and
Hamad ibn Atiq.
As the book appeared after the end of the first jihad experience, the
author reflects on the Saudi role in this jihad. He depicts official Saudi
involvement in the Afghan jihad as an attempt to control the parties
involved and prevent the rise of the ‘real Islamic state’.
The regime spent millions for this purpose. It patronised Jihadis who were pre-
vented from reading any literature that denounced the blasphemous Saudi
regime. It even set up a residence compound for Saudi Jihadis, called al-bayt al-
saudi, to prevent its own citizens from mixing with Muslims. They prevented the
publication of manuals teaching Jihadis how to fight guerrilla warfare in cities
because the regime feared that they would apply these methods in Saudi Arabia.
When Saudi Jihadis returned home, their books were confiscated at the airport.
They were put in prison. Saudis spend millions to appear as defenders of faith. In
fact, they want to keep jihad away from the country. We pray to God to destroy the
regime at its own hands.36

Abu al-Bara’s book was only the beginning of a series of dissident publica-
tions that appeared in London, all challenging the Saudi religio-political
124 Contesting the Saudi State

discourse that was propagated by the state. In 1995 Saudi Hizb al-Tahrir
dissident Muhammad al-Masari published a book entitled al-Adilla al-
qatiyya ala adam shariyyat al-dawla al-saudiyya, in which he denounced
Wahhabiyya itself. Al-Masari confirms that Abu al-Bara’s book contains
the full evidence in support of its main thesis, i.e. the blasphemy of the
Saudi regime. However, he argues that Abu al-Bara’s book is not satisfac-
tory because it contains inappropriate language in addition to extensive
discussion of minor issues such as smoking. In al-Masari’s words the
author ‘like other Salafis fails to distinguish between absolute issues where
there is consensus and where the label kufr can be applied and other issues
where there is difference of opinion and can be subjected to ijtihad [inter-
pretation]’.37 Al-Masari proposes subjecting the whole regime, rather than
individuals within it, to sharia in an attempt to judge its Islamic creden-
tials. There are criteria specified as absolute requirements for the legiti-
macy of Islamic political leadership: first, rule according to the revealed
word of God, which excludes a ruler as a source for legislation; second,
enable Islam to flourish and its rituals to be performed; third, associate
with Muslims and dissociate from infidels – a position that defines inter-
national relations, to use modern terminology; and fourth, apply sharia
rule rather than simply admitting its relevance. According to al-Masari the
Saudi regime fails to comply with these four conditions.
The Saudi regime, according to al-Masari, suspends shaair al-Islam
such as jihad. It does not forbid usury and vice. In fact, he claims that the
regime actually promotes vice. Although there is a committee that is sup-
posed to promote virtue and prohibit vice, its functions are distorted. He
argues that the regime inherited this committee, which it kept not
because it cares about the obligation but because it fears the conse-
quences of abolishing the institution. The committee establishes the
appearance of an Islamised space rather than its message. Therefore, the
regime uses the committee to distort the image of Islam rather than to
prevent vice and promote virtue. It fights the obligation incumbent upon
Muslims to debate their political, military, economic and social affairs. It
accepts only preachers who instruct their audience in matters related to
personal worship. This observation confirms the establishment of an
Islam that is obsessed with ibadat (rituals, personal worship), at the
expense of bringing out other aspects of the Islamic tradition, a theme
that is at the heart of Sahwi activism. He criticises both Al-Saud and
Wahhabi ulama:
The Al-Saud spread a distorted Islam. They allow their ulama to condemn the
so-called innovators who perform shirk near tombs, worship dead saints, trees,
stones and sand. They forbid the mawlid [celebration of the Prophet’s birthday],
which is an issue subject to difference in opinion rather than consensus among
Struggling in the way of God abroad 125

scholars. These issues become the main focus of preaching. Yet the blasphemy of
rulers who introduce secular laws, their glorification and their subservience to
infidels are hardly condemned by such ulama.38
Like Abu al-Bara, al-Masari exposes the dark side of official Saudi
engagement with the Afghan jihad. He argues that the regime suppressed
those Arab Afghans who questioned the legitimacy of their despotic
rulers. Their aim was to control the Jihadis and make them subservient
to King Fahd rather than support them in their efforts to fight the
Communists. He cites the example of the regime paying tribal groups in
Afghanistan to block the travel of the Arab Afghans, especially Saudis, to
reach training camps where debate about the Islamic credentials of King
Fahd regularly took place. The Saudi regime, according to al-Masari,
patronised the Afghan leaders in order to ensure that the outcome of the
struggle did not challenge its own credibility. Al-Masari points out that
the Saudi regime manipulated the Afghan Jihad and sent spies to report
on Saudis, a theme that is so well articulated in Muhammad al-Hodhayf’s
novel, Nuqtat taftish, cited at the beginning of the chapter. Al-Hodfayf’s
character Jamil, who is now concerned with demonising Jihadis, was a spy
acting on behalf of the Saudi project in Afghanistan. Al-Masari admits
that Saudi Jihadis returned to Saudi Arabia with a new understanding of
their own so-called pious state:
Having acquired training in weapons and combat, having read hundred of books
denouncing the despots, having mixed with the real preachers, Saudi Afghans
returned with a different face. They acquired and internalised the thought that
excommunicates rulers, their supporters, and aides. The excommunication tradi-
tion was not new. Only its application to the Saudi regime is new. The young
Saudi Afghans returned having lost trust in the regime’s ulama, ‘regardless of the
length of their beards and age’. The ulama retaliated by condemning those young
men and accusing them of spreading fikr shadh [perverse thought]. The youth left
thinking that they were tied with an oath of allegiance to the Al-Saud (fi unuqihim
baya), but when they returned they realised that this was an illusion.39
Having evaluated the current Saudi regime, al-Masari concludes by con-
testing the Wahhabi movement itself and its founder, Muhammad ibn
Abd al-Wahhab. He not only scrutinises the Wahhabi religio-political dis-
course but also the relationship between the Al-Saud and the Wahhabi
ulama. This necessitates a return to the original pact between the
reformer and Al-Saud. Al-Masari praises Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s concern
over purifying faith from blasphemous practices but he criticises the
reformer on four grounds:
First, the reformer overlooked the fact that the sultan [ruler] is not allowed to
collect money from his subjects except that which is specified in the Quran
and tradition. Second, hereditary rule contradicts Islam. Third, the reformer’s
126 Contesting the Saudi State

commitment to limit his allegiance to Al-Saud anchors the call to monotheism in

localism and prevents its universalisation. And fourth, granting the Al-Saud the
right to political leadership and the ulama the right to decide in religious matters
are unacceptable measures that lead to secularisation and the creation of kahanut
[a clergy], both are un-Islamic.
Al-Masari concludes that the Wahhabi reform movement degenerated
into ‘a local Najdi regional call that is also racist (unsoriyya). It failed to
rise above its localism and preach a universal message.’40

Transnationalisation in peaceful contexts

Saudi involvement in Afghanistan was only one context of the transnation-
alisation of its religious discourse. For the Saudi regime the transnational-
isation of dawa (call) became a political strategy rather than a mere
religious obligation. Under the guise of religious duty towards other
Muslims, the regime sought to establish its credentials among communi-
ties worldwide. It patronised Muslim regimes in various parts of the world,
but its religious transnationalism was meant to reach the grass-roots level
in order to control it and prevent it from contesting Saudi status and hege-
mony. While the Saudi government knew that it was difficult for impover-
ished Muslim states to contest Saudi hegemony, it feared the people in
those states. Charity and education proved to be powerful mechanisms:
the first bought dissenting voices, while the second aimed to control the
minds and hearts of Muslims from Detroit to Jakarta.
Exporting the call involved the transnationalisation of Saudi religio-
political discourse before it achieved a degree of sophistication suitable
for an international Muslim audience, especially among Muslims in the
West. The parochial local discourse was exported before it was able to
produce all-encompassing and less exclusivist interpretations. The arrival
of Muslim immigrants in the 1960s who worked in education and reli-
gious institutions inside Saudi Arabia had done little to broaden the scope
of the Wahhabi message.
From the 1970s the official Saudi religious discourse travelled abroad
to peaceful locations in Europe, America, Africa and Asia. Under the aus-
pices of the Saudi regime, mosques, charitable organisations, religious
schools, research centres and dawa institutions were set up abroad.
These grass-roots bodies differed from the formal and institutionalised
activities that were represented by the Organisation of the Muslim
Conference, the Muslim World League and other Islamic economic and
financial organisations and bureaucracies that were sponsored by the
Saudi government. The transnationalisation of Saudi religious discourse
reached Muslims abroad as a result of educational programmes (in
Struggling in the way of God abroad 127

mosques, research centres and schools) whose main function was to dis-
seminate religious knowledge produced by aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya.
The fatwa volumes of Ibn Baz and al-Uthaymin, the most eminent Saudi
scholars of the last two decades, could be found in small, shabby Islamic
bookshops in Washington, London, Paris, Madrid, Lagos, Jakarta and
other cities. While Muslims visiting Mecca could pick up a free copy of
fatwas relating to pilgrimage, prayer, fasting and how to visit the Prophet’s
mosque in Madina without committing ‘blasphemous acts’ such as sup-
plication or sacrifice to other than God, they can now receive such litera-
ture in their home countries, where Saudi-sponsored Islamic education
centres distribute it freely. Members of the Council of Senior Ulama,
together with minor scholars and recently appointed staff in religious uni-
versities, wrote these fatwas, not only for local consumption, but also for
other Muslims abroad, and even potential converts.
Saudi Arabia exported vast religious literature that fell into four cate-
gories: first, the ibadat literature, whose main objective is the codification
of the practice of Islamic rituals according to Wahhabi interpretations;
second, literature that denounces the practices of other Muslims (includ-
ing those who perform rituals differently or believe in other interpreta-
tions); third, literature dealing with Muslim women; and fourth, literature
defining relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. Any Saudi-spon-
sored religious centre abroad had sample literature covering all these
areas. What concerns us here is not the literature that deals with ibadat
and how they should be ‘correctly’ performed (for example, prayer and
fasting) but with the political implications of such literature.
First, Muslims who contemplate visiting Mecca and Madina for either
the pilgrimage or umra (minor pilgrimage) receive a leaflet instructing
them on how to perform al-ziyara (the visit). A leaflet published by a reli-
gious centre in Madina found its way to one Saudi-sponsored religious
centre in London. The leaflet explains the rules guiding the visit. It was
written by a lecturer in religious studies in Saudi Arabia who worked
under the editorship of Sheikh Abdullah ibn Jibrin, one of the most
eminent ulama, whose name was associated with the crystallisation of the
Sahwi trend. It includes a warning against some of the mukhalafat (errors)
committed by Muslims upon their visit to the Madina mosque. There are
seven permissible acts:
1-It is permissible to travel for the purpose of praying in the mosque.
2-It is permissible to travel to pray even if the visit has nothing to do with the pil-
3-When a Muslim arrives in the mosque, he must enter it with his right foot and
say the name of God, in accordance with visits to mosques in general.
4-A Muslim must pray, kneeling twice for salutation.
128 Contesting the Saudi State

5-After prayer a Muslim must go to the tombs of the Prophet, Abu Bakr and
Omar and greet them. He must not spend a long time there. He must leave imme-
6-It is mustahab (desirable) to perform ablution at home and visit the Qubba
mosque and pray.
7-It is desirable to visit the Baqi cemetery and the tombs of the martyrs of Uhud.
The document warns Muslims that building on tombs or constructing
mosques on them is one of the greatest prohibited acts.41 Muslims are
warned about the following:
1-Travel with the objective of ‘visiting’ the Prophet’s tomb is prohibited. A
Muslim must travel with the objective of praying in the Prophet’s mosque.
2-Tomb visits are for men only. Women must not visit them.
3-Touching (tamasuh) minarets or stones, and kissing them or circling around
them is an abominable innovation.
4-Intercession is strictly prohibited. No one must ask the Prophet for favours.
5-Raising the voice with supplication near the tomb is prohibited.42
The appendix of the leaflet explains the two types of shirk (blasphemy).
The ‘great association’ (shirk akbar), which removes the individual from
Islam, consists of supplication to other than God, sacrifice to other than
God, circling around tombs, and rule not according to the revealed word
of God. ‘Minor association’ (shirk asghar), which is great but falls short of
removing one from the realm of Islam, involves swearing by a name other
than that of God, and saying ‘God and so and so willing’, which implies
equality between the will of God and that of a person.
Needless to say, the permissible and prohibited during visits to the
Prophet’s mosque in Madina reflect boundaries that early Wahhabis
erected around themselves. These revolve around the way a true Muslim
must worship, and are clear markers of identity. The regulation and
control of worship rituals such as visiting the mosque distinguish between
the faithful, who are part of the community, and those other Muslims
who are by definition outside the realm of true Islam. Those who do not
follow the rules risk committing not only minor religious innovations but
also acts that remove them from Islam altogether. Such people cannot be
excused on the basis of ‘ignorance’. Receiving this leaflet abroad and
complying with its rules removes any such excuse.
Regulating and controlling ritual practice outside Saudi Arabia is a pre-
emptive measure that guards against potential acts of blasphemy and
defilement in sacred territory, which must remain free of manifestations
of shirk. The theme of defilement of Arabia by religious practices that do
not conform to the Wahhabi rules is but one possible menace that the
transnationalisation of Wahhabi discourse was meant to prevent.
Defilement can also take place as a result of ‘infidels’, defined as najs
Struggling in the way of God abroad 129

(impure), being stationed on its territory, a theme that al-Qaida Jihadis

excelled in developing and which became the slogan under which they
fought and killed infidels in residential compounds. Again Jihadis took
Wahhabi discourse to its logical political conclusions. They neither
invented this discourse nor imported it from other Islamists movements.
Second, it is considered important, to safeguard against further defile-
ment of the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, that creed literature is dis-
tributed abroad. Muslims intending to visit Saudi Arabia find collections
of aqida books in Saudi-sponsored religious centres abroad. Fatwas in
aqida is a small booklet by Sheikh Ibn Baz that sums up important
Wahhabi opinions on creed. It starts with a statement about the blas-
phemy that is exhibited by other Muslims (these days), for example ‘the
blasphemy that takes place near tombs’. Sheikh Ibn Baz explains:
Shirk and innovation take place in many countries near tombs. This includes
asking help from the dead to heal the ill, or supplication to be victorious against
enemies. All this is great shirk that removes Muslims from Islam . . . Prophets,
angels, pious men, jinn, spirits and idols have no powers. To call upon them is kufr
. . . To pray near tombs or build minarets above them is shirk innovation.
According to the Prophet, God cursed Jews and Christians because they con-
verted their prophets’ tombs into places of worship. All Muslims and their govern-
ments must be warned against this great blasphemy.43
Sheikh Ibn Baz gives his opinion on hypocrisy (nifaq), as it has ‘become so
common among Muslims and is now used to fight Islam and Muslims’.
The hypocrisy of a Muslim amounts to ‘the enemy within’, who publicly
professes Islam but secretly works to erode the faith of Muslims and
undermine their hegemony. The sheikh describes this malaise:
Munafiq [hypocrites] are mentioned in the Quran. They represent a great danger
to the umma. They fall within two categories. First, those who practise ‘creed’
hypocrisy (nifaq aqadi). They are more kafirs than Jews, Christians and pagans.
They are so dangerous because they are difficult to discover. Second, those who
practise practical hypocrisy (nifaq amali), which involves pretending to pray and
believe in God but in secrecy they lie, commit treason, and do not perform com-
munal prayer.44
Again the theme of hypocrisy as explained by Ibn Baz is picked up by
Jihadis, as will be demonstrated later in the book. While Ibn Baz describes
ordinary Muslim hypocrites as drawing on Quranic and Hadith evidence,
Jihadis apply the concept to people in positions of authority and leader-
ship, al-hakim al-munafiq (the hypocrite ruler): the Saudi king.
Third, Saudis export a vast literature on women. The Saudi regime
depicts itself as the guardian of women’s honour, a claim now contested
by those who oppose the regime. Nevertheless, exporting Wahhabi
guidance to Muslim women worldwide is an extension of the domestic
130 Contesting the Saudi State

obligation. In both exported and domestic religious discourse, Muslim

women are considered elevated creatures, who have rights and obliga-
tions. Most literature sets Muslim women in an honourable space above
jahili and Western women. In both the age of ignorance and the contem-
porary West, women are described as oppressed and abused, and Muslim
women are depicted as enjoying more rights and respect. Women,
however, are seen as potential weak elements (daif). Because of this
alleged weakness, the enemies of Islam (the kafirs, hypocrites and
Westerners) use Muslim women to corrupt the umma. This makes
women dangerous and susceptible to corruption. In one volume sent to
London and dedicated to educating Muslim women, Sheikh Salih al-
Fawzan writes:
The enemies of Islam and those who have illness in their hearts want Muslim
women to become a cheap commodity to be purchased by those with satanic
desires. They want women to be a displayed commodity to see her beauty. They
want her to leave her house and family and work as a nurse in a hospital, an air
hostess on a plane, a teacher in a mixed school, an actress in a play, a singer and a
television presenter. The enemies of Islam use the media to lead Muslim women
astray. Women have left their real jobs in the house. Husbands are now forced to
bring foreign maids to bring up children. This caused discord and evil.45
Issues relevant to Muslim women’s education involve ahkam (rules) con-
cerning the body. The focus is on biological functions (menstruation,
other types of bleeding and birth), dress and the veil, worship (prayer,
fasting, pilgrimage), marriage and relations with men. No educational
material on women’s general rights in Islam is included. Al-Fawzan’s con-
tribution to Muslim women’s education is concerned with the biological
female life cycle (birth, marriage and death), purity and ablution, and cov-
ering the body in order not to cause chaos or lead men astray. The obses-
sion with the female body rather than female rights is symptomatic of the
general political atmosphere, which aims to perpetuate acquiescence.
Women potentially undermine state piety and virtue, therefore they need
to be controlled. Controlling women is thus an extension of the religio-
political orientation of the Wahhabi tradition. The discourse that is
directed towards women produces not only acquiescent females but also
dependent women, whose biological functions cannot be handled without
consulting a male religious scholar. Women’s dependence on continuous
fatwas dealing with the minute details of their bodily functions and
worship ensures control in this life and salvation in the afterlife.46
This obsession with the female body and exclusion of other relevant
educational material has gained official Saudi religious scholars a pejora-
tive title. Their opponents, both Islamist and liberals, secretly refer to
them as mashaykh al-haydh (‘the sheikhs of menstruation’). Today, their
Struggling in the way of God abroad 131

female educational literature is a contested discourse both inside Saudi

Arabia and abroad. As the regime and Wahhabi ulama claim the privilege
of defending women’s honour, opposition forces and dissidents’ voices
equally use the issue of women to contest the ulama’s authority.
The fourth type of literature educates Muslims in how to handle rela-
tions with infidels. Among Muslim minorities in the West, the obligation
to protect the faith and educate Muslims, who are believed to face daily
challenges to their identity, is regarded by Saudi religious scholars as an
important duty of Muslim governments. In a pamphlet entitled Muslim
Minorities: Fatwa Regarding Muslims Living as Minorities, Shaykh
Abdulaziz Ibn Baz and Shaykh Muhammad al-Uthaymin invoke a
Quranic sura in which Muslims have a duty to ‘invite to the way of your
Lord with wisdom and exhortation and argue with them in a way that is
better’.47 With regard to Muslim minorities, the two scholars insist that
Muslim governments should ‘send to them whoever can assist them in
achieving this and ask them to send people to Islamic countries to learn
knowledge. There should be, therefore, an exchange of people between
those Muslim minorities and the Muslim societies in order to activate
them and help them in all their affairs’. The responsibility of such an
exchange lies with political leaders and religious scholars: ‘The rulers of
Muslims everywhere as well as the scholars and the rich must expend
whatever they can to assist the Muslim minorities. They must be good to
them, help them to understand their religion and help them to acquire
complete freedom to manifest the rites and practices of Islam.’48
In Saudi Arabia the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and
Ifta is in control of religious interpretations. Before the millennium cele-
brations in December 2000, the committee offered ‘an Islamic opinion
regarding celebrating this occasion, exchanging cards with the “unbeliev-
ers”, and having days as holiday during the period of this event’.49 It gave
nine reasons to ‘make Muslims aware of the misguidance deliberately
condoned by the People of the Book’ and urged Muslims worldwide to
shun the celebrations because

1-Jews’ and Christians’ theories about the millennium are against the Islamic true
revelation, and are merely an illusion. 2-Celebrating the millennium makes Islam
appear as similar to other false religions. 3-It is prohibited to imitate the non-
believers. 4-Imitating the non-believers in the exterior behaviour leads to some
kind of love and support to them in the interior. 5-Celebrating with the non-
believers is a sin, a trespassing of the borders of Allah. 6-It is unlawful to advertise
the event electronically and in print media. 7-There is no Islamic evidence
that those dates (of the Millennium) have any precedence over other days.
8-Congratulating each other or the non-believers is unlawful. And finally
9-Muslims should commit themselves to the Muslim calendar.50
132 Contesting the Saudi State

The banning of Muslim participation in the millennium celebrations

draws heavily on the opinion of the committee and the fatwa of Sheikh
Abdulrahman ibn Abdulaziz al-Sudays, the imam of al-Furqan mosque
in Mecca, copies of which are distributed in London and elsewhere.51
The committee that bans sending a greeting-card to an ‘infidel’ is the
same one that in 1990s issued a fatwa legitimising calling upon ‘infidel’
states to assist in fighting another Muslim state. Members of the same
committee also issued fatwas banning women from wearing jeans,
because this would count as pious Muslim women ‘imitating infidels’
(tashabuh bi l-kuffar). The contradictions of the official religious dis-
course contribute to its loss of credibility and contestation.
In 2004 al-Sudays delivered a sermon in London’s East End mosque,
where he talked about tolerance and accepting the ‘other’, now clichés
that summarise the transformation forced on the Saudi regime and its
ulama after 11 September.52 It was doubtful whether his early 2000 fatwa
was forgotten; Western governments eager to maintain amicable relations
with a regime in control of 25 per cent of world oil reserves kept a blind
eye, but the intellectual and psychological effect of contradictory religious
discourse on young Muslims in Europe and elsewhere is perhaps similar
to that among young Saudi men and women. Contradictions do not make
for balanced lives, and Saudi society experiences far more than any other
society, thanks to Wahhabi discourse and excessive and sudden wealth.
Wahhabi religious interpretations relating to worship and creed can be
popular abroad. They can be seen as rational and methodological, and as
founded on certainty and clear-cut categories. They reflect an obsession
with sacred texts, easily accessible in both print and electronic format.
These texts can be interpreted without mediators; thus in theory the dis-
course offers the possibility of dismantling the traditional authority exer-
cised by fathers, religious scholars and pious men. Wahhabi interpretations
call for the rationalisation of worship, minimalist rituals, equality between
Muslims, and the rejection of sorcery, superstition and innovations. In
theory they preach a sober rather than an animated religion. They offer cer-
tainty in a world dominated by fluid categories and multiple interpreta-
tions. Certain Muslim university students worldwide may appreciate their
clarity, purity, certainty and authenticity. They may also appreciate the
absence of ambiguity and hesitation. The discourse allows them to imagine
a glorious Muslim past which appeals to defeated Muslims and margin-
alised youth as well as to wealthy and educated men and women.
Saudi Wahhabi discourse creates the illusion of empowerment, an
empowerment that is achieved by complying with rigid rules and fatwas
that regulate almost every aspect of one’s life, body and relations with
others. It is the new ‘science’ of young Muslims.
Struggling in the way of God abroad 133

The transnationalisation of this discourse can also create moments of

confrontation among the recipients.53 As it aims to standardise belief and
worship, it risks obliterating local traditions and interpretations, under-
mine local power relations, threaten age-old hierarchies and create new
ones. Its spread has tended to Muslims split rather than unify them. Its
uncompromising and dogmatic nature leaves no room for the middle
The premature transnationalisation of Saudi Wahhabi religious dis-
course, initially to Afghanistan and later to other destinations, led in some
instances to the promotion of the authority of the Saudi regime and its
Islamic credentials. Paradoxically, it also led to contestation of this author-
ity and even undermined its security.54 It can be said that there are unin-
tended consequences of religious transnational connections. Wahhabi
religio-political discourse is anchored in a specific context, but as it has
flowed beyond this it has developed its own momentum, escaping the
control of those who initially engaged in its promotion. Such forays into
the wider world can turn into embarrassment, leading to international
crises, which threaten to destabilise foreign policy, inter-state relations and
contemporary international relations. The events of 11 September are a
clear example.
The transnationalising of Saudi religious discourse proves that locally
produced traditions and individuals undergo a transformation as they
travel to other destinations. Sometimes it is difficult to argue that these
traditions themselves are anchored in a specific locality and discourse, as
many of them are products of interpretation and diverse influences.55 The
Saudi Afghan experience was perhaps one of the most important experi-
ences for the younger generation. Although the regime tried hard to
contain the Afghan jihad by patronising and subsidising it, together with
other states and intelligence services, it failed miserably in controlling the
outcome and consequences. A cross-fertilisation of religious discourse in
Afghanistan, London and many other places contributed to bringing out
elements of Wahhabiyya that the regime had endeavoured to suppress for
several decades. Away from home and under the fog of war, Saudi
Afghans took Wahhabi religio-political discourse to its logical conclusion.
Similarly under the fog of London, which allowed greater freedom, the
same discourse was interpreted and reinterpreted to condemn those
umara and ulama who claim to be guided by such discourse.
4 Struggling in the way of God at home: the
politics and poetics of jihad

Remove the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula.

Prophet Muhammad, Hadith

How can jihad be an unlimited good in the lands of other Muslims but a
corruption in the Arabian Peninsula?
Sheikh Yusif al-Ayri (d. 2003), leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula

In the twenty-first century, Saudi society is struggling over religious

interpretation, which seems to be at the heart of political activism. As the
struggle unfolds, it is accompanied by strife among various groups and
confrontation between those groups and the state. Traditional ulama,
Sahwi sheikhs, Jihadis and laymen debate religious interpretations; not all
subscribe to non-violent dialogue. Since 1990 violence has become the
dark side of the Saudi religio-political debate. Various contestants chal-
lenge each other in a desperate attempt to control interpretations of reli-
gious discourse. The debate intensified after 11 September.
With American military power closing the gates of jihad in Afghanistan
following the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001, the struggle of
Saudis for the way of God came home.1 Many Saudi Jihadis who trav-
elled for the second time to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden had
lived between 1996 and 2001, returned to Saudi Arabia. After the top-
pling of the Taliban, the dismantling of al-Qaida training camps and the
arrest or flight of Saudi trainees, it seemed to many observers that the
War on Terror, led by the USA and a number of supporting countries,
was proving successful. Yet several countries in the region experienced
waves of violence. Between 2001 and 2005, Saudi Arabia witnessed the
worst violence in its modern history, conducted under the rhetoric of
expelling infidels from the Arabian Peninsula and removing the despots,
known in Jihadi discourse as tawaghit of the Land of the Two Holy
On 12 May 2003 a major bombing took place in Riyadh; thirty-five
people were killed and hundreds injured. On 8 November 2003 car
bombs devastated al-Muhayya residential compound, killing over twenty
Struggling in the way of God at home 135

people and injuring many residents. On 21 April 2004 the building of the
security forces in Riyadh was devastated by car bombs. On 2 May 2004
four attackers killed several Western workers in the industrial city of
Yanbo. In the same month, another attack on offices and residences of oil
company workers took place in al-Khobar in the Eastern Province. Before
the end of 2004, on 6 December, the American consulate in Jiddah was
attacked. A few days later, a car bomb exploded in the Ministry of Interior
buildings in Riyadh.2 In 2005 regular shoot-outs between Jihadis and
security forces continued.
These bloody attacks were major events that marked a turn in the
Jihadi project. They announced the arrival of the jihad campaign in the
Land of the Two Holy Mosques, as the Jihadis called it. In addition, not a
week passed during this period without the government announcing
major success in capturing arms and killing suspected terrorists in the
major cities, the mountains around Mecca and the farms of Qasim. Many
people, referred to as armed and violent suspects, were killed in shooting
incidents between Jihadis and the security forces. In 2005, Dammam saw
the worst shoot-out between security forces and Jihadis, who took refuge
in one building. There was no doubt that the struggle in the way of God
had returned home after several years in the diaspora.
The rhetoric of Jihadis, the legitimising narrative of violence, drew on
the sacred Quran and the Prophetic tradition, citing Hadiths calling
upon Muslims to remove associationists or polytheists from the Arabian
Peninsula – a reference to Westerners, mainly Americans. It is ironic
that the struggle continued even after the USA and the Saudi govern-
ment announced that most American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia
had been moved to neighbouring Gulf states, mainly Bahrain and Qatar,
in 2003. However, some American military bases remain in Saudi
Arabia. As it unfolded, the struggle proved to be more complex and
nuanced than simply a strategy to purify the land of Islam from infidels.
The symbolism was, however, potent. The rhetoric of the struggle grew
in a specific political context and is inspired by its own politics and
Throughout the 1990s, while the famous Sahwa ulama were behind
bars, a strong indigenous Jihadi trend took shape, which does not represent
an external religious tradition, both politically and ideologically, as often
mistakenly claimed by the government, traditional ulama and Saudi
media. While several successful scholarly works have attempted to trace the
indigenous historical and religious roots of contemporary Jihadi discourse,3
other works dissociate Jihadis from the indigenous Saudi–Wahhabi inter-
pretations.4 In official Saudi discourse, Jihadis are often referred to as
Kharijites, or those who have gone astray (al-fia al-dhalla).
136 Contesting the Saudi State

The quest to identify the local origins, causes and intellectual roots of
Jihadism could have been a legitimate exercise at a time when Saudi
Arabia was more isolated from the outside world. However, the country
has now been drawn into the political, economic, intellectual and reli-
gious exchanges of other places. Easy travel, the internet (since 1999),
satellite television and the media in general connect Saudis to other
places and people. While Saudi Arabia received ideas and religious inter-
pretations from abroad after opening its borders to Islamic trends since
the 1960s,5 it proved to be equally capable of initiating its own transna-
tional religious flows to distant locations, thanks to a vigorous campaign
of proselytising and royal patronage.6 Saudi religious discourse was inter-
nalised by a whole generation of students who flocked to Saudi Islamic
universities in Madina and elsewhere.7 It is probably inaccurate to
describe religious discourse inside the country since the 1970s as purely
Saudi. It is equally unconvincing to describe the Islamic discourse that
one encounters in London, Washington, Jakarta, Kabul and Peshawar as
purely Saudi–Wahhabi. At the same time, one cannot argue that Jihadism
in Saudi Arabia is an alien intellectual trend imported from other Islamist
movements and locations.
Whether they draw on local religious tradition or imported politicised
religion from other places, all Saudi Jihadis make use of locally produced
religious knowledge and interpretations. Furthermore, regardless of
whether the inspiration for, or even the orders to engage in, violence come
from outside – for example, al-Qaida or other global Jihadi movements –
it is certain that there is a strong local dimension to the Jihadi trend.
Religious theoreticians of jihad (for example, some ulama), interpreters
(Islamist intellectuals) and those who carry out violent acts such as
suicide bombers and other young militants are all Saudis, with the excep-
tion of a handful of activists who belong to other Arab countries and
whose names have appeared in Saudi wanted terrorist lists.8 To attribute
the outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia in the twenty-first century to
outside agents such as a global terror movement is to miss the fact that
this violence has its own local religious codes, meanings, politics and
poetics which resonate in some Saudi circles. The violence associated
with the Jihadi trend affirms that it is part of a ‘highly meaningful relation-
ship with divinity’.9 Violent actors are understood as culturally authentic
and significant rather than examples of the absence of such significance.
The terrorist attacks of the 1990s, which increased in frequency and
magnitude in 2003–4, are not senseless and aimless acts by a group of
alienated youth, often described in official religious and political circles as
khawarij al-asr, contemporary Kharijites. Perpetrators of violence are
guided by cultural codes that draw on sacred texts and interpretations by
Struggling in the way of God at home 137

religious scholars who claim to return to an authentic Islamic tradition,

found not only in al-kitab wa l-sunna (the book and the deeds of the
Prophet) but also in medieval and more recent commentaries on the texts
by famous religious authorities among aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya. Jihadi
violence is not at the margin of religious interpretation, but is in fact at its
centre, hence the difficulties in defeating the rhetoric of jihad in the long
term. Jihadi violence, until now dormant in many cultural and religious
interpretations, has recently erupted and claimed many lives.
A more fruitful approach to interpret the Jihadi trend and the violence
associated with it must start with a number of assumptions. First, Jihadism
is a cultural expression grounded in strong religious interpretation that is
indigenous to Saudi Arabia. Second, even if Jihadism in Saudi Arabia is a
function of global terror networks and transnational religious and political
flows, it grows in a specific local context with its own cultural codes and
experiences. Third, Jihadism is not an affirmation of alienation, anomie,
criminality, economic deprivation and social marginalisation, but an
affirmation of a pledge to superiority and the belief in one’s ability to
change the world by action. It is often understood as a sign of the break-
down of ‘traditional’ society, loss of identity as a result of increased urban-
isation and modernisation, or self-destruction and annihilation. It may
grow in a context characterised by negative conditions of poverty, margin-
alisation and alienation, but one should not confuse context with cause.
It seems that Jihadism, together with the violence associated with it, has
been brought from the margins to occupy a central place in the religious
map of Saudi Arabia. In Jihadi discourse, changing the world by action is
not a reflection of defeat, but an expression of empowerment felt by
young militants, ideologue ulama and other Islamist intellectuals. Unless
the perpetrator’s view forms part of our own understanding, interpreting
the Jihadi trend will escape us. It is also essential to consider the role
played by the Saudi regime in creating a context that allows it to grow. In
many respects, the violence of the Jihadis represents a mirror reflecting
the violence of the state and its official ulama.

Taking Sahwa to its logical conclusion: qaidun vs.

The Jihadi trend is often seen as the logical conclusion of the Sahwi
movement that openly dominated the Saudi religio-political scene
throughout the 1980s and 1990s.10 While it was clear that the religio-
political awakening included diverse movements and trends, it seems
that there was a common source of inspiration and an agreement on
basic principles. However, one of the most difficult tasks is to draw the
138 Contesting the Saudi State

boundaries between various Islamist groups. While there is common

ground, they seem to differ in their religious, political and strategic
The Jihadi trend was operating within a context of religious diversity.
Jihadi literature does not see itself as a deviation from the sources that the
Sahwis drew on in the early 1990s. However, the release of famous Sahwi
ulama from prison and their subsequent interpretation of jihad, which
limited it to peaceful cultural, civilisational and religious struggle under
the banner of wali al-amr (leader of the Muslim community) marked a
serious departure in the eyes of Jihadis from the main principles of dawa
and the early Sahwi position. Jihadis began to see themselves as the real
heirs of Sahwa, carrying its banner, while those left behind or who failed
to join them, both physically and intellectually, are labelled qaidun (lit.
‘sitting’ or ‘stationary’: those left behind). Jihadis describe themselves as
murabitun ala al-thugur (tied to the battleground).
While Jihadi and Sahwi interpretations are both grounded in Salafi reli-
gious discourse, three main differences separate Jihadis from mainstream
Salafi Sahwis. An uncompromising rejectionist position towards the
Saudi regime, a belief in violent resistance against Western domination,
and the choice of legitimate means and targets for jihad (for example, the
security forces and Western expatriates living in Saudi Arabia can both be
legitimate targets) mark Jihadis out as a separate group on the religio-
political map of Saudi Arabia.
Sahwis have reservations about the Saudi regime (dawla), but in public
they label it Islamic. They resist Western domination by what they call
peaceful civilisational means, and consider it a serious crime to kill Muslims
who work for the regime – for example, members of the security forces. It
has also been noted that Sahwis, after the experience of prison and the
events of 11 September, have adopted a position which considers society
rather than the regime to be problematic and in need of reform. Although
Sahwis developed and propagated the rhetoric of Jihad and resistance to
Western domination, they did not consider Western expatriates and Saudi
security forces to be legitimate targets, especially after 11 September. It
seems that this position is grounded in political strategy and expediency, for
which they have developed elaborate judicial rulings. It is also based on
their belief in the fact that an Islamised society generates Islamised govern-
ment – that is, correct dawa leads to authentic Islamic dawla – without
recourse to violence. For the majority of Sahwis, jihad abroad (for example,
in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya and Palestine) is legitimate, whereas inside
Saudi Arabia it is not. For example, a statement in support of jihad in Iraq,
condemning any Muslim who cooperates with infidels’ on ithm wa udwan
(sin and aggression), was signed by twenty-six Sahwi ulama.11
Struggling in the way of God at home 139

In the 1990s, and as a result of the Gulf War, the main question for the
Sahwi ulama was the legitimacy of calling upon the ‘infidel West’ to help
in a war against the Iraqi Muslim army that invaded Kuwait. The famous
fatwa of Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Baz which legitimised the invitation of
foreign troops by Saudi Arabia split the religious community and gener-
ated the dissidence described in the previous chapters.12 However, almost
ten years later, the main question became the legitimacy of Muslims
assisting the infidel West in its war against other Muslims, starting with
the Taliban in 2001 and moving on to Iraq in 2003, all depicted in
Western discourse as part of the War on Terror. In the twenty-first
century, and immediately after 11 September 2001, the West, headed by
the United States, demanded that Muslim governments assist it in its War
on Terror. This opened new frontiers in the quest for reforming religion
and politics in Saudi Arabia. Above all, it inspired a debate regarding the
legitimacy of Muslim governments assisting the enemies of Islam by
killing Jihadis.
Since 11 September and the invasion of Afghanistan by US forces, a
group of religious scholars came to be known in official discourse and in
the Saudi press – for example, al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Watan and al-Jazirah –
as the trinity of excommunication (thulathi al-takfir), which consisted of
sheikhs Ali al-Khodayr, Ahmad al-Khalidi and Nasir al-Fahad.13 These
sheikhs were part of a well-established intellectual genealogy that drew on
the early writings of Wahhabi scholars such as Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab, Sulayman ibn Abdullah Al-Shaykh, Hamad ibn Atiq, Humud al-
Tuwayjiri, Muhammad al-Qahtani, Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Shaykh
and Humud ibn Oqla al-Shuaybi. The so-called trinity of excommunica-
tion was the young version of an old group of well-established religious
scholars. It had strong genealogical links with a previous generation of
Wahhabi scholars, in addition to contemporary ones. As religious schol-
ars, they hardly referred in their writings to twentieth-century Jihadi
Islamist activists and intellectuals such as Sayid Qutb or Ayman al-
Dhawahiri. The latter were simply not their reference points.
In an attempt to examine the intellectual practice and the current
context of excommunication and jihad, the writings of one of the young
Jihadi scholars who emerged in the post-11 September period will be
considered. Sheikh Nasir al-Fahad, who was considered part of the trinity
of excommunication, wrote several pamphlets and issued a number of
fatwas considered a window from which to observe his thought. One of
his most important treatises, al-Tibyan fi kufr man aana al-amrican, deals
with religious opinion on the status of Muslims who help Americans.14
While in the 1990s Saudi religious scholars debated the legitimacy of
asking Americans for assistance in expelling Saddam from Kuwait, in
140 Contesting the Saudi State

2001 the debate was about Muslims (Saudis) assisting Americans in

attacking other Muslims, for example in Afghanistan. Al-Fahad does not
publicly name individuals within the Saudi regime – for example,
princes – as infidels, nor does he openly consider the Saudi state as a state
of kufr. However, his writings may imply that this is the case. The obvious
evidence which is often cited is Saudi relations with the USA and the
regime’s alleged departure from the revealed word of God. His imprison-
ment and later confessions on Saudi television in December 2003 reflect
the regime’s worries over his rhetoric and its ability to mobilise the youth
of the country. While there are other religious texts dealing with ‘assisting
infidels’ written by more established religious scholars, for example
Sheikh Humud ibn Oqla al-Shuaybi’s book al-Qawl al-mukhtar fi hukm
al-istiana bil kuffar (Chosen Words for the Rule Regarding Calling Upon
Infidels for Assistance),15 al-Fahad’s book is easier to read and can be
more accessible to non-religious specialists.
Although a graduate of one of the Islamic universities in Saudi Arabia,
al-Fahad is neither an established religious scholar nor a well-known
figure among the Sahwi ulama, although he may have gravitated towards
them in the 1990s. He was born in the early 1970s. Unusually for a reli-
gious scholar, his interest in religious matters and interpretation did not
distract him from writing his own genealogy, and he published a book
about his own tribal ancestors, al-Asaida, a branch of the Utayba tribe
who inhabited Zilfi, a frontier town between Najd and the Gulf.16 Al-
Fahad is aware of the fact that ansab (genealogies) are controversial from
an Islamic perspective, which tried to mould groups into a unifying reli-
gious community, suffused with the ethos of equality, and is concerned
to justify documenting his lineage as being part of the Islamic tradition.
He claims to have followed the middle path between an obsession with
ancestors and forgetting them. Al-Fahad rejects the idea that concern
with tracing genealogy should be a prelude to enforcing a hierarchical
relationship between groups, an unacceptable position condemned by
Islam because God insists that men are distinguished by piety. On the
other hand, forgetting genealogy can lead to undesirable consequences,
for example the severing of kinship ties, especially with increasing
migration and dispersal. After this prelude, al-Fahad traces his own tribal
ancestry, confirming his Arab Adnani origin and membership of the
Rawq branch of Utayba that inhabited Najd, a tribe that more than
any other contributed to the establishment of the current Saudi state.
Utaybis were early converts to the Saudi cause and provided the
manpower that invaded Hijaz in 1925. Their performance in early
jihad as Ikhwan fighters, and later rebellions against the state, are well
Struggling in the way of God at home 141

Al-Fahad is the son of a religious scholar, Sheikh Hamad bin Hamin

bin Hamad bin Fahad who according to his son moved from Zilfi to
Riyadh in 1374H (1944) where he assisted one of the most prominent
and influential religious scholars of the current Saudi state, Sheikh
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Shaykh.17 Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim
is today remembered in Salafi circles as one of the most faithful and
uncompromising interpreters of the Wahhabi tradition before the official
co-optation of the ulama by the state in the early 1970s. As mentioned
earlier in this book, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Shaykh died in
1969. Al-Fahad’s father occupied various jobs in religious educational
institutions, justice, and jurisdiction. He retired in 1411H (1990).
In one of the most important and comprehensive pamphlets, al-Tibyan
fi kufr man aan al-amrican (Revealing the Blasphemy of Those who Help
Americans), published on his website in 1422H (2001–2),18 al-Fahad
summarised his view on the problem of association with Americans in
their aggression against Muslims. The publication of the book followed
the attacks of 11 September and American preparation for the invasion of
Afghanistan. Muslim cooperation with Americans is regarded as kufr
(blasphemy), as the title implies. The book does not mention the Saudi
regime or use it as an example of regimes co-operating with Americans in
their ‘War on Terror’.
In the preface three Saudi religious scholars applauded al-Fahad’s
book and described it as a clear and accurate treatment of the subject
matter. Sheikh Humud al-Oqla al-Shuaybi wrote the first endorsement of
the book, confirming the intellectual genealogy of this young scholar. Al-
Oqla described al-Fahad as a mujtahid belonging to the ‘victorious party’
and recommended his book to the public, as he found it to be ‘one of the
best books on the issue of the blasphemy and apostasy of those who assist
Americans’. The book is endorsed by two other important Saudi sheikhs,
Sulayman al-Ulwan and Ali al-Khodayr, both intellectual ancestors of the
young scholar. Their praise enhances the credibility of the book at least in
the eyes of other Jihadis, especially when coming from established Salafi
authority figures, some of whom were members of the Council of Senior
Ulama. This attests to early observations made in this book regarding the
difficulty of drawing clear-cut boundaries between offfical and non-
official, radical and moderate ulama.
Al-Fahad’s book consists of three general sections: The Crusade
against Islam (part I); Evidence of the Blasphemy of Those who Help
Americans (part II); and A Reply to Some Misguided Opinions (part
III). While al-Fahad makes a political statement about Americans and
the Taliban regime in part I, he elaborates theological arguments in part
II, which represents the most substantial part of the book. This section
142 Contesting the Saudi State

includes a sub-section in which al-Fahad lists evidence from the religious

scholars of al-dawa al-najdiyya, a reference to the Wahhabi movement
and its main religious scholars since the time of Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab. In part III, al-Fahad refutes some misguided opinions relat-
ing to the topic of association with and dissociation from infidels,
al-wala wa l-bara.
The book exemplifies the various aspects of al-Fahad’s theological and
political orientations. In addition to being a religious scholar, he poses as
a political analyst who comments on current affairs which he sees through
the prism of the past, tradition and the words of God. His political com-
mentaries on current affairs expand beyond matters relating to Muslims
and their history. In fact, he feels confident enough to comment on and
analyse American society – despite lacking any direct contact with it –
both in America or in Saudi Arabia. Al-Fahad would definitely regard vis-
iting America as a form of an ‘abode among polytheists’ (bayn dhuhrani
In a section of the first part of the book, entitled Synopsis on America,
al-Fahad paints a dark picture of American society, where moral degener-
ation, crime, corruption and atheism reign. America is portrayed as a land
where Satan has taken refuge (‘ashash fiha al-shaytan’). He cites statistics
on homosexuality, illegitimate births, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual
perversion and other sins. He reminds the reader of qawm Lut (the people
of Lut), an extinct community known in the Quran for ten deadly sins, the
most famous of which is homosexuality. American society not only
engages in these sins but endeavours to spread them worldwide as a result
of military intervention and colonial wars, according to al-Fahad. In few
pages, he depicts America as a godless country, ruled by a government of
corruption and sins that does not hesitate to kill in various parts of the
world, mainly in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and listing examples of
American interventions in places like Somalia, Lebanon, Vietnam and
others. Al-Fahad argues that America is dangerous not only for its mili-
tary adventures but also for its moral bankruptcy and corruption which it
endeavours to export to other places, including the Muslim world.
In contrast, in the section in the same part (part I) entitled Synopsis on
Taliban, al-Fahad paints the antithesis of America. After a brief introduc-
tion in which the religious and social diversity of Afghan society is
described, al-Fahad argues that the emirate of Taliban is an Islamic gov-
ernment because it applied the sharia in all aspects of life. The achieve-
ments of the Taliban are listed in terms of establishing a Committee for
the Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, promoting an Islamic
media policy, prohibiting the shaving of beards, segregating men and
women, eradicating opium cultivation, demolishing pagan statues in
Struggling in the way of God at home 143

museums and elsewhere, emphasising the duty of jihad in the educational

curriculum, and delaying the education of girls until the availability of
qualified female teachers. Al-Fahad concludes that America’s war on
Afghanistan should be understood in terms of a crusade whose main
purpose is to destroy one of the first experiments in establishing Islamic
government in the Muslim world. Invoking several speeches by President
Bush and other senior figures in the American administration, al-Fahad
reflects an awareness of the political rhetoric of the ‘enemy of Islam’. He
uses this rhetoric to enhance the credibility of his own narrative and con-
cludes that ‘it is indeed a war on Islam’.
In part II, Evidence of the Blasphemy of Those who Help Americans,
al-Fahad identifies two important dimensions in Islam: first, belief in one
God alone (al-tawhid); and second, the prohibition of polytheism (shirk).
Excommunication is a state which follows the violation of the principle of
the oneness of God. Al-Fahad endeavours to prove that enmity towards
infidels (kafirun) and dissociation from them (bara) are central to belief
in the oneness of God. Evidence is drawn from eight sources: the Holy
Book (al-kitab); consensus (al-ijma); tradition of the Prophet (sunna),
sayings of the companions of the Prophet (aqwal al-sahaba); deduction by
analogy (qiyas); history (tarikh); the words of the people of knowledge;
and the words of the scholars of the Najdi dawa. It is extremely interest-
ing that al-Fahad devotes a whole section to the latter scholars and treats
them as a separate category of people of knowledge. The fatwas and
sayings of twelve Wahhabi scholars are listed as evidence of the centrality
of the duty of dissociation from infidels.
The author describes three general relations with infidels that draw on
Islamic texts, history and tradition. He sketches a perception of relations
between Muslims and non-Muslims that draws on ancient texts in order
to guide contemporary and future relations that Muslims both individu-
als and states may have with infidels. First, tawwali is a kind of relation
with infidels which removes the person from the realm of religion. It
includes love of the infidel’s religion, wishing them victory, and helping
them against Muslims. This is a relationship of subordination and sub-
servience to infidels. It is the most reprehensible, as it leads the Muslim
himself to become an infidel.
A second relation, muwalat, is forbidden but does not lead to blas-
phemy. Muwalat involves, for example, respecting infidels in meetings,
greeting them before Muslims, and showing them love and affection.
According to al-Fahad, this relationship between Muslims and non-
Muslims can be problematic, as it may develop into tawwali. It is perhaps
accurate to describe this relationship as one of deference and accommo-
dation shown by Muslims towards non-Muslims.
144 Contesting the Saudi State

The third association, which is permissible, muamalat jaiza, involves

treating infidels with justice, especially non-combatants who live in
Muslim lands. According to al-Fahad, the poor amongst them ‘should be
clothed, their hungry should be fed, and their weak should be protected.
Muslims should do this not out of fear and humility but out of compas-
sion.’ Here he confirms an important Muslim tradition, namely justice
towards the weak and those who represent no danger to the Muslim
Al-Fahad argues that Muslims confuse the three types of relations. His
main concern is with the dangerous state of tawwali, which he explains on
the basis of the writings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who insisted
that tawwali (helping infidels against Muslims) is naqidh lil islam (a factor
that removes a Muslim from the religious community and Islam). Al-
Fahad lists types of help that are forbidden, for example, help that
requires the use of one’s own body, weapon, tongue, heart, pen, money
and opinion. This assistance is considered both blasphemy and apostasy.
After this general theological treatise, outlining permissible and pro-
hibited relations with infidels, al-Fahad moves to contemporary politics,
focusing on the American invasion of Afghanistan, described as a new
crusade against Islam and Muslims. This is interpreted in light of evi-
dence from the Quran. In a section on sharia evidence, al-Fahad lists
eight suras in which God informs the believers of the intentions of unbe-
lievers who have ‘plans to undermine the faith of Muslims, subjugate
them and fight them until they declare their subordination and servi-
tude’. One sura informs the believers about the intentions of Jews and
Christians: ‘Never will the Jews and Christians be satisfied with thee
unless thou follow their form of religion’ (sura al-Baqara, verse 120).
Another sura mentioned by al-Fahad prohibits intimate relations with
Ye who believe
Take not into your intimacy
Those outside your ranks
They will not fail
To corrupt you. They
only desire your ruin
Rank hatred from their mouths
What their hearts conceal
Is far worse. (sura al–Umran, verse 118)

With the support of evidence from sacred texts, al-Fahad describes the
‘reality’ of the new crusade in an attempt to emphasise the relevance and
applicability of the Quranic sura to contemporary political context. In
addition to invasions under the banner of colonialism (hamlat istimariyya),
Struggling in the way of God at home 145

and later invasions under United Nations sanctions (hamlat umamiyya),

he lists several examples of contemporary crusades against Muslims in
Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Lebanon, Somalia, Afghanistan, Bosnia,
Kosovo, Macedonia, Chechnya and Kashmir, where Muslims have been
killed. He also includes missionary activities, which are a form of ‘violence
as these missionaries try to “Christianise” Muslims’.
Other evidence derives from history. Al-Fahad lists fatwas of famous
ulama forbidding Muslims to help non-Muslims against Muslims. In
addition to examples from medieval times, especially the era of the
Mongol invasion and the responses of Ibn Taymiyya, the colonial
encounter between Muslims and non-Muslims, for example in Algeria
and Egypt in the twentieth century, he provides ample examples of reli-
gious scholars who spoke out against Muslims providing assistance to
non-Muslims. He gives a list of theological positions from the four major
Islamic schools of jurisprudence (Hanbali, Shafii, Maliki and Hanafi),
recent ulama (for example Rashid Rida, Ahmad Shakir and Abdulaziz
ibn Baz), and contemporary scholars (such as Safar al-Hawali). Al-Fahad
implies that there is consensus among Muslim scholars throughout
the ages that assistance to infidels leads to excommunication. This obvi-
ously stands in sharp contrast with Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi’s controver-
sial fatwa to American Muslims in which he declared their participation
as soldiers in the American army during the invasion of Afghanistan
Al-Fahad moves to the evidence of Wahhbi religious scholars, whose
theological position is in his opinion the most clear and uncompromising
regarding helping non-Muslims against Muslims. He describes the
ulama of the Wahhabi call as ‘the most outspoken ulama in this regard.
They produced elaborate fatwa and books on the subject,’ thus justifying
his detailed consideration of their intellectual heritage. Al-Fahad brings
the story closer to his homeland and his intellectual ancestors by citing
scholars who are the guardians of the Wahhabi tradition and its most loyal
interpreters. Starting with the writings of the founder, Muhammad ibn
Abd al-Wahhab, he offers a survey of the opinions of those who kept his
tradition alive, mainly the aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya, the Najdi scholars
whose work is set apart as evidence supporting the belief in the blasphemy
of all those Muslims who assist non-Muslims against their fellow
Muslims. The list includes the fatwas of Wahhabi scholars over three cen-
turies, starting with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and ending with
Safar al-Hawali. Al-Fahad cites a famous fatwa by Sheikh Ibn Baz, who
warned Muslims against helping infidels, at the time ‘Socialists and
Communists’, a reflection of the context in which the Cold War defined
the enemy as the Soviet Union. In fact, as early as 1944, Ibn Baz clashed
146 Contesting the Saudi State

with Ibn Saud over the ‘invasion’ of infidels, who were at the time
American contractors with the government working on agricultural and
development projects.20 Al-Fahad’s celebration of the Wahhabi scholars
and his line of analysis are a clear continuation of the tradition clearly
represented in the work of sheikhs such as Sulayman ibn Abdullah
Al-Shaykh and Hamad ibn Atiq, both of whom issued fatwas excommu-
nicating those who assist infidels in wars against Muslims. In the early
nineteenth century the infidels were the Ottoman sultan and his troops.
In fact, both scholars insisted that punishment for Muslims who assist
infidels against other Muslims should be harsher (akhtar ghaltha) than
that meted out to infidels.21
This interpretation of the duty of association and dissociation as out-
lined by one of the most controversial Jihadi ulama led to his imprison-
ment, for two main reasons. First, the Saudi regime was not ready to
tolerate such theological discourse at a time when it was under tremen-
dous pressure from the United States to curb the spread of what was
regarded as anti-American religious interpretations. Second, al-Fahad’s
interpretations, although coined in an abstract manner, indirectly impli-
cate the Saudi regime, which was increasingly seen as a regime willing to
offer iana (assistance) to Americans during their war on Afghanistan.
American military bases in Saudi Arabia were being discussed as possible
places from which to launch attacks on Afghanistan.
Al-Fahad’s theoretical treatise was followed by a scathing attack on
Sahwi ulama and intellectuals who after 11 September declared the
establishment of al-Himla al-Alamiyya li Muqawamat al-Idwan (Inter-
national Campaign to Resist Aggression), with the Sahwi sheikhs leading
the campaign, defined as peaceful resistance against American aggression
on Muslims using dawa methods. Al-Fahad was specifically concerned
with Bayan al-muthaqqafin (The Declaration of Intellectuals), which
called for dialogue with American intellectuals. In a pamphlet entitled
Taliat al tankil bi ma fi bayan al-muthaqafin min al-abatil (Early
Disparaging Attack on the Wrongs of the Intellectuals’ Manifesto), al-
Fahad declared that the Saudi ulama and intellectuals who signed the
petition expressed ‘defeat, humiliation, begging and demonstration of
love towards the infidels’.22 He mentions an early lecture by Salman
al-Awdah entitled ‘Why They Fear Islam’, in which he stated the central-
ity of jihad against infidels. Al-Fahad rejects peaceful resistance and reit-
erates the importance of jihad against those who undermine Islam. His
attack on Sahwa ulama centres on the way they abandoned their early
message and instruction to Muslims, well documented in pamphlets, cas-
settes and public lectures. In a tone reminiscent of a student respectfully
reprimanding his teachers, al-Fahad asserts that media campaigns and
Struggling in the way of God at home 147

international treatises failed to achieve what was accomplished by the

bombing of the Marines in Beirut (1983) and the Mogadishu violence;
both used language that the infidels understand.
Al-Fahad asserts that there is no difference between the Soviet occupa-
tion of Afghanistan in the early 1980s and the 2001 war on the same
country by the United States. He questions the argument that the first
occupation required resistance through jihad while the latter did not. He
argues that the only difference is that the 2001 situation is a battle against
Americans, to which Muslim governments have become subservient.
Citing Western journalists in the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times,
al-Fahad concludes that it is a crusade against Muslims and the
Wahhabiyya. Any reluctance, therefore, in helping the Taliban to resist
the American invasion becomes a specific religious duty (fard ayn) on the
Afghans themselves and a complementary obligation (fard kifaya) on
other capable Muslims. This leads him to question the argument that ‘we
[possibly a reference to Saudis] cannot join the jihad in Afghanistan
because we have a treaty (mithaq) with the United States’. Resisting the
War on Terror, which started in Afghanistan, is a defensive jihad (jihad al-
daf), the best and most noble form of struggle in the way of God. In this
specific context permission from the leader of the Muslim community is
not even a necessary prerequisite. Afghanistan on the eve of the American
invasion was a context that required the privatisation of jihad. The strug-
gle in the way of God becomes the prerogative of individual Muslims as li
Muqawamat take matters into their own hands.
We have seen how Jihadi interpretations of the relationship between
Muslims and infidels, exemplified by al-Fahad’s treatise on istiana (assis-
tance), represents a blueprint for an understanding of international rela-
tions from a specific Islamic point of view. In this interpretation, there is no
room for realpolitik, compromise or negotiation, at least in al-Fahad’s
approach. His theory offers three possible relationships, two of which are
either blasphemous or can lead to blasphemy. Embedded in this theory is
the obligation to make jihad rather than peace, the latter being a preroga-
tive of Muslim compassionate behaviour towards non-enemy infidels.
Using the pressing issue of the sharia position on those who assist infidels,
he develops the conclusion that resistance is not sufficient, but that in fact
attack is compulsory in Islam. The argument draws on an intellectual
genealogy, starting with the Quran, Hadith and both early and later reli-
gious scholars. Al-Fahad demonstrates that the centrality of excommuni-
cating those who assist infidels is stressed not only by Muslim scholars
worldwide but by the scholars of the Wahhabi reform movement, to which
he devotes a whole chapter. The justification for violence against those
who assist infidels becomes self-evident and a logical conclusion to be
148 Contesting the Saudi State

drawn from this treatise. Al-Fahad’s book shows that in general violence is
systematic and is always governed by rules and replete with meanings.23
Al-Fahad’s views on assisting Americans and the blasphemy that con-
stitutes such an act mirrors his opinion on a wide range of political, social,
religious and sectarian issues. He dedicated several treatises to countering
what he calls shubuhat (doubtful, misguided statements and opinions) of
a whole range of scholars and communities. For example, his refutations
of the claims of dead scholars (Ibrahim ibn Musa al-Shatibi al-Maliki)
and contemporary ones (Sheikhs Yusif Qaradawi and Hasan al-Maliki),
in addition to his Responsa to Shiis, Sufis and Zaydis reflect his endorse-
ment of a specific meaning of jihad as a total struggle against opponents,
Muslims or otherwise.24 Al-Fahad is a strong believer in the totality of
Islam and its ability to provide a meaningful framework for life, and guid-
ance on causes as noble as defending the land of Islam and faith and as
small as the permissibility of using hair dye, false eyelashes, internet chat
rooms and video cassettes. While it is easy to condemn al-Fahad as a
radical preacher, whose words may inspire violence and terrorism and
whose religious interpretations are uncompromising, it is difficult not to
acknowledge that his views resonate with a substantial section of Saudi
society. It is also difficult to situate his religious convictions within
contemporary social scientific paradigms where the sacred is relegated to
the realm of irrationality, obscurity and mystification. Al-Fahad’s dis-
course is neither irrational nor obscure. He aims to demystify a whole
range of ‘misguided positions’ that have replaced authentic tradition. His
approach to religious interpretation reflects a desire to reform the reform
movement after it has been ‘corrupted’. His intellectual genealogy is
neither contemporary nor foreign; yet he is totally immersed in moder-
nity, and willing to engage in interpreting it and responding to its chal-
lenges. Although his intellectual roots have become dormant in modern
times under the pressure of politics and prosperity, his discourse has
erupted into both the local public sphere and the wider world, thanks to
new communication technology and the internet. Saudi religious dis-
course was transnationalised at a time when it was not so ready for such
exposure. This premature publicity is primarily responsible for accelerat-
ing the confrontation not only between Saudis but also with outsiders. Al-
Fahad revisits well-known intellectual grounds, but links old arguments
to contemporary concerns.
As al-Fahad’s contribution to the religio-political debate through his
website and electronic pamphlets came to an abrupt end with his arrest in
Madina in May 2003, the struggle in the way of God at home took a nasty
turn with the eruption of violence in 2003–4 and the announcement of
the establishment of an al-Qaida branch in the Arabian Peninsula.
Struggling in the way of God at home 149

The struggle in the way of God in the Arabian Peninsula

While religious scholars such as al-Fahad and others wrote treatises on
jihad, association with infidels and excommunication, the struggle in the
way of God at home produced a media campaign, not only to introduce
the practitioners of the duty and its ideologues, but also to win new
recruits for the cause. Above all, the Jihadi media campaign was meant to
defend jihad against a religious background which obliged Muslims to
obey the ruler, even if he is unjust, in order to safeguard against chaos,
death and discord among Muslims. The internet was the most popular
medium, especially after Jihadi ideologues went underground, were sent
to prison or died in regular confrontations between security forces and
what the regime called ‘suspected cells’ or ‘wanted al-Qaida activists’.
Theoreticians of jihad expressed their views in a bimonthly magazine,
Sawt al-Jihad (The Voice of Jihad), the mouthpiece of al-Qaida in the
Arabian Peninsula. Words, images and iconography were combined to
depict an organised underground movement, with a regular media
outlet.25 Furthermore, the magazine became the arena in which biogra-
phies and obituaries of the ‘heroes of jihad’ were published. The maga-
zine, its writers and readers constituted a community joined in faith and
strengthened by theological arguments.26 On the pages of the magazine,
jihad is celebrated in images, iconography and poetry targeting the hearts
of its readers. With Sawt al-Jihad, the struggle became an integrated cul-
tural whole, combining religion, politics, literature and art. While the
appearance of the magazine on the internet is heavily censored and cur-
tailed, electronic links leading to the latest issue continue to appear on
discussion boards. In such an atmosphere of censorship, it becomes the
duty of al-qaidun (the sitting ones), i.e. those who have not joined the
jihad for some reason, to disseminate the links to the ‘voice of jihad’.
One of the most important functions this magazine performed was to
defend the arrival of jihad on home soil, especially after the eruption of
violence. After the Riyadh bombings of May and November 2003, a
detailed document, The Flowing Spring in Supporting Jihad in Riyadh,
edited by Saleh bin Saad al-Hasan, an alias, was published on the Sawt al-
Jihad website.27 It included several contributions in defence of the Riyadh
bombings and in support of the theological grounds according to which
such attacks were carried out. The rationale behind such publication is
explained as ‘dismissing the ignorant and misguided opinions of people
who are now judging jihad. Those people do not speak with knowledge
but insult our Jihadis. Despite the Saudi campaign against our Jihadis,
many of whom are in hiding or in prison, God allowed justice to appear at
the hands of real men who dismiss the obscurantism of the misguided
150 Contesting the Saudi State

people.’ It is claimed that the book is the unfinished project of one impor-
tant Jihadi sheikh, Yusif al-Ayri, who died in 2003. Other contributions
are by Jihadis who use a mixture of aliases: tribal (Barghash ibn Tuwala);
regional (Bashir al-Najdi; Abu Bashar al-Hijazi); with Islamic connota-
tions (Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir (the Immigrant)); and invoking modern
political meanings (al-Hizbi al-Mutasatir (the Hidden Party Member).
These names could well be the noms de guerre of a single Jihadi. All con-
tributors anchor their personae in names that resonate with a wide circle
of readers by invoking tribal affiliation, Islamic heritage, regional flavour
or political modernity. In addition to support from theological treatises
anchored in Quran, Hadith and sayings of ulama, jihad is an act that
requires the mobilisation of passions, religious duty and tribal honour, all
in the context of modernity. The propaganda of Sawt al-Jihad is not only
meant to arouse a passionate desire to guard faith and nation, but also to
celebrate and document the lives of those who die in pursuit of the ulti-
mate death: martyrdom.
Sheikh Yusif al-Ayri (killed by Saudi security forces) is introduced as
the founder of Markaz al-Dirasat wa al-Buhuth al-Islamiyya (the Centre
for Islamic Study and Research) and the author of several Jihadi treatises.
Sheikh al-Ayri, thought to have been the leader of al-Qaida in the
Arabian Peninsula until his death in the summer of 2003, immediately
after the first major Riyadh bombing in May, provides the basis for refut-
ing the official anti-Jihadi opinion of Saudi ulama which dominated
public debate. He explains the rationale for bringing jihad to the Arabian
Peninsula, especially after official Saudi ulama justified it abroad – for
example, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya and other locations – while
forbidding it at home. Al-Ayri asks why jihad abroad is an unlimited good
but is considered a cause of corruption at home. He questions why such
official Saudi ulama consider jihad a source of discord and a crime in the
Arabian Peninsula, where in his opinion the conditions requiring it (both
daf (defensive) and talab (offensive) are present. Al-Ayri dismisses the
opinion of the ulama, both official and the so-called Sahwis, as biased,
and gives several reasons for doing so. First, opinions given under threat
of state violence are invalid and biased. Second, most fatwas against jihad
were issued in accordance with commands from the Ministry of the
Interior. Third, control of the media in Saudi Arabia prevents any unbi-
ased consideration of jihad. Fourth, the Ministry of the Interior remains
the only source allowed to report on the number of dead and their iden-
tity after each round of violence, in which the Ministry mistakenly claims
that victims are Muslims. Fifth, the ulama cannot solve the contradiction
embedded in forbidding jihad in Saudi Arabia and commanding it else-
where while the conditions necessitating it remain the same. Al-Ayri
Struggling in the way of God at home 151

describes the context in which religious opinion is sought and how this
context undermines the legitimacy of such opinions. He is a Salafi-
turned-modernist as he ‘situates’ and ‘contextualises’ religious opinions
and fatwas. He draws attention to the political pressure exerted on the
ulama by the state in order to compromise religious judgement and
produce opinions in support of state policy.
After this introduction, another author elaborates on the sharia evi-
dence in support of the legitimacy of the violent events in Riyadh. This
elaboration is presented as a response to a series of questions, drawn from
current official religious and political rhetoric in condemnation of jihad at
home. Sheikh Bashir al-Najdi refutes each question as if it was shubuha (a
doubtful or misguided statement). The collection of erroneous state-
ments revolves around the legitimacy of killing people with whom there is
a contractual relationship requiring peace, for example civilians, women
and children. He denounces other misguided statements presented to
him as questions relating to the duty to announce the suspension of
peaceful treaties before attacking; attacking without having been attacked
first; precipitating chaos and internal discord; and undermining local
peace and order. These are arguments that had dominated Saudi public
debate in the media and in religious circles, all aiming to undermine the
rationale of local jihad, and defeat Jihadis religiously, politically and
morally. Sheikh al-Najdi deconstructs each shubuha, using proof from the
Quran, sayings of the Prophet and those of religious scholars such as Ibn
Taymmiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim.
On the idea that attacking American civilians in Saudi Arabia is illegiti-
mate because they are under the protection of the Muslim ruler, Sheikh
al-Najdi refuses to recognise that the Saudi king is a legitimate Muslim
ruler and that Westerners in Saudi Arabia are peaceful, protected citizens.
In his opinion, the regime’s support for the West and its internal policies
(he cites Western-style banking and moral corruption as examples)
removes the ruler, often referred to as the imam, from the category of
rightful Muslim rulers. ‘I do not know where this imam is’, says Sheikh al-
Najdi. He claims that the current imam is senile (a reference to the ageing
King Fahd) and unable to rule, but that the official ulama refuse to recog-
nise his mental disability and act accordingly – that is, practise khal
(forcibly removing a ruler from office by withdrawing the oath of alle-
giance), an act that in the Sunni tradition is required in the case of an ille-
gitimate or incapacitated imam. He argues that the Saudi regime cannot
give aman (peace) to the people of the book (ahl al-dhimma) because it is
not an Islamic government. In fact, he says that the regime pursues poli-
cies in support of the infidel’s agenda rather than of its own Muslim
people, citing Saudi cooperation with America in its war on Afghanistan
152 Contesting the Saudi State

in 2001, sanctioning Iraq throughout the 1990s and providing support

for the invasion in 2003.
Furthermore, America’s aggression towards Muslims in Palestine,
Afghanistan and Iraq means that both the government and its citizens are
legitimate targets for retaliation. In Sheikh al-Najdi’s words, Americans
are harbi (an aggressive nation). His argument reiterates that of Nasir al-
Fahad who outlined the type of permissible relations with infidels. He
concludes that Americans in Saudi Arabia do not qualify for muamalat
jaiza, that legal Islamic treatment preserved for non-aggressive infidels
living in the land of Islam. On the question of Western women and chil-
dren falling victims, he asserts that killing innocent people is illegitimate,
but if they cannot be separated from the enemy, then killing them cannot
be considered prohibited. It is an unintended act of murder that accom-
panies the deaths of those intended as the targets of the attack.
The killing of Muslims in the violence that erupted in Saudi Arabia also
needed a religious opinion – not to defend it but to justify a necessary evil,
in Sheikh al-Najdi’s words. Against a background of revulsion and
absolute prohibition on Muslims murdering Muslims, Sheikh al-Najdi
faces a difficult if not impossible task – how to convince other Muslims
that under certain conditions there is no escape from this tragic act of
unintended murder, in modern parlance ‘collateral damage’. The ques-
tion whether a Muslim can kill a fellow Muslim who declares that ‘there is
no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet’ is one of the most prob-
lematic theological issues Jihadis faced after the outbreak of violence in
general and the attack on the Saudi security forces in particular. This
question is neither new nor resolved. Furthermore, the issue of diya
(blood money) and kaffara (compensation for sinful acts) becomes prob-
lematic too. If Jihadis kill other Muslims unintentionally, are they under
the obligation to pay these penalties? Sheikh al-Najdi endeavours to
clarify the shubuha related to this complex matter. According to him, it
should be dealt with under questions of tawil (interpretation of con-
cealed meanings) and ijtihad (the application of reason to a religious
ruling). After citing several situations involving early Muslims, al-salaf
(the pious ancestors) whereby such unlawful killing of Muslims took
place and the response of the Prophet to such acts, Sheikh al-Najdi con-
cludes that Jihadis cannot be ‘criminalised’ because they did not intend to
kill Muslims. Muslims killed unintentionally are considered martyrs in
this specific situation. However, if they are accomplices in corruption, sin
and immorality and have chosen to live with the infidels, they deserve to
be fought and killed. They have become a shield for infidels and as such
they themselves are wrongdoers. In a situation where good Muslims
cannot be segregated from non-Muslims, Jihadis do not commit a sin by
Struggling in the way of God at home 153

killing fellow Muslims, according to Sheikh al-Najdi: ‘There is a consen-

sus among the ulama that if we cannot reach non-Muslims without
falling into the sin of killing Muslims, then this is permissible (jaiz), as
long as we fear for the lives of Muslims.’
As Jihadis brought the battle to Saudi Arabia, they unveiled a dormant
schism between themselves and other contemporary ulama and Islamist
intellectuals, whom they considered a group that would at least remain
silent rather than condemn them. As the struggle in the way of God came
home, Jihadis clashed with Sahwis, who not only sided with the govern-
ment and official ulama but also endeavoured to delegitimise the project
of Jihadis, by providing religious evidence proving their dhalal (obscu-
rity), misguided interpretation of the duty of Jihad and other issues.
While violence claimed lives in streets and residential compounds,
another intellectual battle was raging on the internet between Jihadis and

Jihadis and Sahwis: ‘the years of deceit’

While al-Fahad’s treatise discussed above presented religious evidence in
support of contemporary political positions, such as the question of assis-
tance and the legitimacy of jihad in the Arabian Peninsula, another genre
of writing has entered the public sphere, both in defence of jihad and in
response to contemporary developments within the Islamist camp: the
position of Sahwis vis-à-vis Jihadis after the events of 11 September.
Jihadis debate the new ‘un-Islamic’ position taken by Sahwis against
Jihadis and their condemnation of any violent resistance. According
to Jihadis, Sahwis changed their position for political reasons. Instead of
either remaining ‘neutral’ or celebrating and blessing the attacks, they
chose to openly condemn Jihadis. Furthermore, Sahwis opted for ‘peace-
ful’ resistance to Western domination under the pretext of inequality in
military power and in the absence of an Imam under whose flag jihad
becomes legitimate. Jihadis endeavoured to overturn what they called a
pragmatic and defeatist political position.
In an electronic pamphlet entitled, Sanawat khadaa: dirasa li waqi
al-sahwa (The Years of Deceit: A Study of the Reality of Sahwa
Preachers), Yahya al-Ghamdi contributes to the debate between Jihadis
and Sahwis to correct what he calls ‘contradictions’ in the approach and
position of the latter at a time when a unified position among Muslims
is more than urgent.28 The book, written in a highly accessible non-
religious tone, is a message to
the preachers whom God did not honour with breathing the air of Qandahar,
Kabul, Grozny, or Jericho. To those whom God did not choose to carry the
154 Contesting the Saudi State

message on the heads of swords [Sahwis]. Today such preachers should at least
support their Jihadi brothers with money, word, supplication, and all meagre
means available to those under the rule of despots.

While the treatise addresses preachers, in fact it speaks to young Muslim

men with no deep religious learning, many of whom are internet surfers
looking for inspiration, assurance and allegiance. It criticises Sahwis by
citing the Quran and the Prophetic tradition, together with classical
Arabic poetry. It situates religious references within the context of inter-
national relations, and the words of George Bush, Safar al-Hawali, Sayyid
Qutb and Osama bin Laden. The text is a pastiche, transmitted using the
latest electronic communication technology. At the heart of this creation
is the conflict between murabitun (those with experience of the battle-
ground) and qaidun. The latter are called the armchair theoreticians
(munathirun), who have lost contact with reality and are awaiting visits by
important Western journalists to assure the West that Muslims are deter-
mined to prevent future attacks on New York and elsewhere – a reference
to a controversial interview with Safar al-Hawali, conducted by Thomas
Friedman. Al-Ghamdi laments the Sahwis’ failure to achieve excellence
even in their stated field, education and the call to Islam.
Al-Ghamdi exposes the rhetoric of such Sahwis and deconstructs the
rationale behind their alleged change of opinion, citing early recorded lec-
tures by important figures in the Sahwi camp. He laments the changing
perspective of Sahwis, who initially promoted a discourse in support of
Jihadis, but later adopted a theoretical interpretation justifying the reluc-
tance of qaidun (those who do not participate). This change followed their
experience in prison during the 1990s, which resulted – in his opinion – in
complete disorientation. Al-Ghamdi attacks the inner logic of Sahwis
which concentrates on the illegitimacy of jihad in the current context of
the Islamic world. Sahwis argue that jihad is pointless where there is such a
great military discrepancy between Muslims and ‘infidels’, and preaching
Islam to re-Islamise society is therefore more fruitful. Furthermore, jihad
is permissible only under the flag of a ruler. These views are strongly
refuted by al-Ghamdi, who promotes an understanding of jihad as a com-
pulsory duty, necessitated by the ‘attack on the land of Muslims’, i.e. by
the United States and its allies, mainly Israel. He questions the claim that
Muslims need a ruler to declare jihad, and laments that neither King Fahd
nor President Mubarak – or any other ‘Muslim’ ruler – qualifies for the
office of Rightful Imam, whose flag is a necessary precondition for
announcing jihad. In terms of war strategy, al-Ghamdi argues that histori-
cally wars are not declared and fought because those who declare them are
assured of victory. But he adds, ‘Have the Sahwis forgotten that God is the
Struggling in the way of God at home 155

source of victory?’ The Sahwis, in his opinion, prejudge jihad as a failure

before asking whether their so-called peaceful resistance has achieved any
of its stated objectives. If ever they state that the confrontation with the
West did not achieve anything apart from tarnishing the image of Islam
and portraying Muslims as bloodthirsty terrorists, al-Ghamdi argues that
no God-fearing religious scholar would suspend jihad in the present cir-
cumstances when all evidence supports the duty to resist Western domina-
tion. Jihad is an individual duty, prescribed to every Muslim (fard ayn),
rather than a duty for a selected few (fard kifaya). He calls for the privatisa-
tion of jihad in the age of globalisation. Furthermore, jihad without an
Imam embodies the articulation of individual duty in the face of the
defeatism of the Muslim rulers. The argument is sealed with lines of
poetry stating that the sword is mightier than the pen.
Al-Ghamdi refers to an important factor behind the ‘defeatist’ Sahwi
position. He argues that God has burdened the ulama with a serious
defect, namely hasad (envy). The Sahwis could not, in his opinion,
compete with Jihadis, who captured the hearts and minds of Saudi
youth, especially after the successful ‘raids on New York, Bali, Riyadh
and other locations’. The jealousy and envy in their hearts were
expressed in their condemnation of Jihadis, who proved their ability to
attack and cripple the enemy, at least precipitating fear and chaos, if not
victory. Al-Ghamdi points at how jealousy motivated ulama al-sultan
(the religious establishment) to attack the Sahwis, whose star was rising
in the 1990s, but now the Sahwi ulama have themselves succumbed to
the ‘burning feeling of jealousy and envy’. Competition over religious
interpretation is a reflection of competition over status, prestige and pop-
ularity. There is no doubt that Sahwis and Jihadis fight a fierce battle over
these ‘worldly’ matters. Religious knowledge is symbolic capital, which
guarantees a material reward under the auspices of the Saudi state, espe-
cially if such knowledge confirms the legitimacy of the state. The Sahwis
thought that their popularity – which had been gained at a time when
Saudis, especially the young, were desperate for validating a discourse
that is obviously antagonistic to both the religious establishment and
political authority, in addition of course to Western hegemony in the
region – was irreversible. However, after 2001, they lost some of their
previous prestige, especially when they appeared to accommodate the
regime. Al-Ghamdi subjects the ulama, both established and Sahwis, to
a sociological analysis, which takes into account political manoeuvring,
group interest and relations with the centre of power. The ulama as a
group are no longer only a class with a special status derived from inter-
preting the sacred text. In fact, al-Ghamdi reduces them to a worldly
group subject to human instincts and interests, which are constantly
156 Contesting the Saudi State

changing in response to a changing political context. The Jihadis regard

the Sahwis as having joined the ranks of official ulama in their submis-
sion to the political authorities.

The poetics of jihad: body and soul

If Sawt al-Jihad is concerned with religious interpretations in support of
jihad and the preparation of the minds of Jihadis, another electronic pub-
lication Muaskar al-Battar (al-Battar Camp), a military magazine issued
by al-Qaida, prepares the body for such an endeavour.29 According to the
editors of this magazine, ‘young Muslims do not know how to bear arms,
not to mention how to use them . . . your Jihadi brothers in the Arabian
Peninsula have decided to publish this booklet to serve young men in
their place of isolation. They will do the exercises and act according to the
military knowledge included.’ It is the condition of the privatisation of
jihad, now a duty to be performed in isolation and on the basis of private
individual initiative, in the absence of a leader to carry its flag, that has
given rise to the publication of Muaskar al-Battar. The editors insist that
‘during the times of the Mongol invasion, it did not help the residents of
Baghdad that most of them were ulama and educators’.
The Jihadis believe that the body is a vehicle, which needs to be nur-
tured in order to fulfil the duty. In one issue of the magazine, Sheikh Yusif
al-Ayri recognises that modernity has its drawbacks, experienced at the
level of the body. Obesity, the disease of the age, is a real obstacle under-
mining the performance of contemporary Jihadis, and as such it should
be fought with a vigorous exercise routine and diet. Al-Ayri’s diet is based
on a balanced calorie count, resembling any diet found in books dealing
with obesity and how to control it. The sheikh outlines the details of three
daily meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner. The first meal of the day, iftar
(breakfast), consists of a small amount of brown bread with butter, a glass
of orange or grapefruit juice, a boiled egg and coffee or tea without sugar.
The midday meal consists of soup, cheese or butter, a slice of bread,
chicken or fish, salad and fruit. Finally, the evening meal is a light dinner
of fish or chicken, tomato juice, half a loaf of bread, boiled potatoes, one
piece of fruit and coffee or tea without sugar. Al-Ayri warns against excess
consumption of red meat – beef or lamb – full-fat cheese and milk, white
bread and excessive sugary fruits.
The Jihadi diet is extremely modern. It overlooks traditional cuisine
and culinary tastes. In a society known for the regular consumption of
rice and lamb, Sheikh al-Ayri proposes revolutionising eating habits in
pursuit of jihad. In order to defeat obesity, the modern disease, Jihadis
must subject their bodies to a strict – and modern – routine.
Struggling in the way of God at home 157

Diet must be accompanied by an exercise routine, bringing to mind the

most advanced training often associated with gymnasiums and sports
centres where the body sweats in pursuit of beauty, health and perfection.
A weekly exercise routine is proposed. It involves warming-up exercises
for five minutes, followed by jogging for thirty-nine minutes. The time is
gradually increased to reach fifty minutes in the sixth week of the pro-
gramme. While this ensures the maintenance of body weight for the
average person, a different, more advanced, six-step exercise programme
must be followed by those already overweight. This consists of walking for
five kilometres, twenty abdomen exercises, twenty chest exercises, climb-
ing stairs, swimming and cycling. Al-Ayri warns against excessive exercise
for those who are not trained properly. Instead of doing all exercises in
one day, he proposes a gradual introduction of each activity over a long
period of time. His advice to Jihadis is perseverance in following the
routine because ‘God prefers persistent acts even if they are not numer-
ous’. The will to fight obesity with diet and exercise is seen as sanctioned
by God and required in order to prepare the body for jihad. A Jihadi must
not only be anchored in faith and perseverance, he must also be fit for the
acts required from him.
Al-Ayri says that orders and instructions can be dry and lacking in
inspiration. For this reason, instructions relating to military and physical
training must be interspersed with poetry, whose ultimate purpose is to
‘enter the ears of Jihadis and find its way to their heart’. Only then will
they respond to the call for jihad. In a short section entitled A Poetic
Station, Muaskar al-Battar uses the power of rhyming words to inspire its
readers. Here the magazine talks to the hearts in a way that invokes the
poetics of jihad, as a break from long sections outlining military training,
illustrated with pictures of deadly weapons.
In one poem, a Jihadi describes his journey as one with a clear destina-
tion and path.30 This journey is illuminated by ‘death, dancing at every
junction’. The dancing death is sought with courage rather than cow-
ardice, as a Jihadi never fears his destiny. Neither ‘thorns’ nor ‘upheavals’
deter him from continuing the journey as his weapon is always his deter-
mination and passion for jihad. The Jihadi is presented as a sword, whose
shining edge exceeds the light of the sun, and those of Indian swords. He
seeks heaven to satisfy his burning desire for shelter in shaded, lavish
gardens. The loss of other Jihadis torments him but he expects to meet
them in heaven. He has grown tired of this world with all its trappings. In
response, he found the road and well of God, which guide the believer,
who draws knowledge and guidance from both. He responded by ‘flying
to seek the way of God’, despite people’s call to deter him. People called
upon him to stop but God called upon him to join the battle without fear
158 Contesting the Saudi State

or hesitation. He concludes his poem by saying that he will proceed, even

alone, and despite those defeatists who ask him to remain behind. In this
poem, the poetic of Jihad anchors the activity in the realm of meaningful
and significant behaviour that resonate culturally, religiously and politi-
cally with a wide range of people.
Jihadi discourse encompasses a wide range of meanings. It situates
jihad in religious interpretations, thus anchoring the duty in sharia
sources, as well as in analysis of world politics and international affairs,
technical military training, pragmatic instructions preparing the body
and poetic illuminations to create a cultural whole that is meant to appeal
to both mind and soul. In such presentations, violence is no longer an iso-
lated act with a single purpose, whether ‘expelling the infidels from the
Arabian Peninsula’ or simply fighting the despots who do not rule accord-
ing to the revealed message of God. Jihad is theoretically and religiously
justified, militarily explained and poetically disseminated, thus creating a
culture that is difficult to defeat because it evokes multiple layers of
reason and faith, political awareness and international relations, and
emotions and values. It plays on local and global identities, and national
and religious sentiments.

Celebrations of life and death: jihad as performance

In a world dominated by media representations, Jihadis seem to be well
prepared for disseminating powerful messages, iconography and sounds,
thus satisfying a world hungry for images of death, destruction and devas-
tation. Through several media organisations, one of which is known as
Muassasat al-Sahab lil Intaj al-Ilami (Sahab Media Production), the
world can see dozens of films of Jihadis in training-camps, preparing for
the struggle in the way of God. While the majority of this media produc-
tion is found on the internet, through links to several sites, some impor-
tant films and video clips are sent to established Arab media satellite
stations such as the Qatar-based al-Jazeera channel. Films are also avail-
able for purchase from commercial companies, for example Tempest
Publishing, a sister organisation of IntelCentre, a Washington-based
company whose stated objective is ‘to assist professionals to understand
and fight terrorism’. This company sells films, CD-ROMs, documents
and other material related to jihad and terrorism to researchers, journal-
ists, and military and security agencies.31 Most of the items on the sale
catalogue seem to be produced by al-Qaida, including the Arabian
Peninsula branch.
One controversial film called Badr al-Riyadh (The Full Moon of
Riyadh, a reference to the 12 May 2003 Riyadh attack), named after the
Struggling in the way of God at home 159

battle of Badr between Muslims and Meccans, was broadcast several

months after the Riyadh bombing. According to Jihadi sources, between
three and four hundred thousand people downloaded the film from the
internet in less than five days.32 To understand Badr al-Riyadh, three
important dimensions must be considered. First is the two martyrs.
Second are other actors, some meant to inspire and encourage viewers –
most importantly Osama bin Laden, Abu Hafs al-Masri, Humud ibn
Oqla al-Shuaybi and al-Khattab, jihad leader in Chechnya – while others
are projected as the ‘malicious other’, against whom the battle is waged.
This category of people includes George Bush, Crown Prince Abdullah,
and Minister of Interior Prince Nayef. Third, the film’s message is
embedded in words and acts.
This film was perhaps one of the most powerful media productions
issued by Saudi Jihadis, for a number of reasons. It showed the suicide
bombers of the attack of 12 May, Ali al-Harbi and Nasir al-Khaldi, in an
unusual location, a private house with a sitting-room lined with comfort-
able cushions and colourful rugs, rather than a military camp with barbed
wires and signposts. The cosy setting is a contrast to that often projected
in other al-Qaida films with Jihadis filmed in training camps, caves
and rugged mountains. Furthermore, the film portrayed the would-be
martyrs in an important event that sealed their fate, zaffat al-shahid cele-
bration of the martyr. The word zaffa is usually associated with weddings
as in zaffat al-arus (bride) or aris (bridegroom), a common celebration
which takes place within the context of Muslim and Arab weddings. The
future martyrs, al-Harbi and al-Khaldi, are celebrated in a televised zaffa
as if they are bridegrooms.33 They are also shown in what looks like a
garage where several Jihadis engage in preparing the vehicle, a jeep, for
the attack. They are seen painting the jeep and changing its number plate
to AZ H 314. A Jihadi explains that 314 is the number of the early Muslim
fighters who participated in the battle of Badr with the Prophet.
Badr al-Riyadh documents an event best understood as a celebration of
life and death interspersed with young men dancing and chanting while
sporting a range of weapons around waists, shoulders and arms. The
martyrs, with their bearded smiling faces completely uncovered and with
their hair longer than is usual for young Saudi men, dressed in white long
shirts, were filmed surrounded by a large number of hooded young men,
dancing and reciting verses from the Quran and other sources. An unseen
interviewer asks the would-be martyrs several questions. A sense of cama-
raderie and solidarity is enhanced by images of the central actors sur-
rounded by supporters and well-wishers.
Although the film shows a celebration of the deaths of the would-be
martyrs, they are seen while still alive, and partake in the jubilation. The
160 Contesting the Saudi State

celebration of life and death and the theme of martyrdom portrayed in the
film confirm Jihadism as a theatrical performance, in which actors and
audience are expected to fuse in a powerful emotional bond. While it is
common for societies all over the world to separate birth and death
rituals, in Badr al-Riyadh the boundaries overlap and are even blurred. In
a single rite of passage, a Jihadi passes from life to death, then he returns
to life. Death is projected as a temporary liminal phase, neither here nor
there, culminating in returning to life. The theme of life and death is best
expressed in a song which accompanies the celebration. The song asks
participants to ‘celebrate the passage of the martyr to his second home in
heaven’, and ‘to celebrate his passage to the afterlife fully clothed, accord-
ing to the tradition of the Prophet’. Al-Harbi explains that martyrdom is a
transaction: God buys the soul of his slave (a human being), who sells it
willingly. In a sombre voice, with his head down and his eyes fixed on the
floor rather than the camera, al-Harbi recognises that the martyr may be
hesitant to leave his family, friends and loved ones, but one is under an
obligation to perform the noble deed, which is prescribed after the five
pillars of Islam. Al-Harbi explains that death is defined as leaving life
(mufaraqat al-hayat), but the martyr has another life in heaven. Death is a
transition from life in a treacherous world to life in a generous world,
where the Prophet and his companions reside. He also invokes the
inevitability of death, whether ‘in bed’ or ‘in a car accident’. Given this
inevitability, he asks a rhetorical question: ‘Isn’t it more noble to die for
the sake of God?’
The martyrs appear in the context of an interview by a fellow Jihadi,
who asks them questions relating to sharia evidence in support of suicide
attacks, the purpose of jihad, the target of their actions, and their views on
the USA, the Saudi state, the ulama and the security forces. The inter-
viewer brings to their attention some of the accusations of the Saudi media
and officials, which portray Jihadis as killing Muslims and generating
chaos in the land of the two holy mosques. The two martyrs are expected
to defend the planned suicide attack on Mustawtanat al-Muhayya (the al-
Muhayya settlement), a reference to a residential compound mostly occu-
pied by expatriates. Al-Harbi invokes the terminology of ‘settlement’ to
allude to similarities between Jewish settlements in Palestine and foreign
residential compounds, inhabited by Americans and Europeans, in Saudi
Arabia. The objective of the attack revolves around liberating the Arabian
Peninsula from infidels, the establishment of an Islamic state, and revenge
for Jihadis who are tortured in Saudi prisons or killed by Saudi security
forces, such as Turki al-Dandani and Yusif al-Ayri. The martyrs lament
the current transformation of the Arabian Peninsula from a land where the
message of tawhid (monotheism) spread to other parts of the world to one
Struggling in the way of God at home 161

from which infidel armies launch attacks, himla salibiyya (a crusade), on

Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the general message of the jihad and its purpose reflect well-
rehearsed arguments put forward by Bin Laden and other Jihadi ideo-
logues, both al-Harbi and al-Khaldi fuse the grand Jihadi narrative with
personal experience, life history and individual motivation. Asked why he
does not go for jihad in areas where there is clear argument in favour of
the practice, al-Harbi inserts his own personal narrative as one of the
primary motivating factors behind his determination to annihilate
himself. He explains that the Saudi state is a kafir state, practising nifaq
(hypocrisy). While the state claims that it supports Muslim causes, it pun-
ishes those who serve their religion. He went to fight in Bosnia in the
1990s, and when he returned to Saudi Arabia he was imprisoned for one
year and three months. He claims that he was tortured, left in a small cell,
deprived of sleep and paraded naked in al-Ruways prison. He was
shocked by both the torture of Jihadi prisoners, as a result of which some
died, and the verbal abuse experienced in prison. He concludes the narra-
tive of his personal journey to seek death by asking, ‘Which Islam is this?’
The second suicide bomber narrates another personal journey. Al-
Khaldi recounts several incidents whereby he and his comrades came face
to face with Saudi security forces. One encounter took place in Istirahat
al-Shifa where a social gathering of Jihadis was taking place. According to
al-Khaldi, they were listening to lectures and engaging in recitations
when armed security men attacked them. A friend died in the encounter
as he was shot by security forces – for no obvious reason, according to the
In addition to the main suicide bombers, the film invokes the words of
famous ideologues. Osama bin Laden’s speeches, together with those of
his aides, such as Abu Hafs al-Masri, and Saudi religious scholars, such as
Sheikh Humud al-Oqla, provide powerful words inspiring not only the
would be-martyrs but a wider circle of viewers as well. The message is to
demonise and terrorise the enemy. In a clear declaration, the voice states,
‘Yes I am a terrorist,’ against a background of chanting:
Crush the Pharaoh with the sorcerers
Kill whoever is an infidel
Make your land a graveyard
For the defeated armies of blasphemy

If ever someone is in doubt of the meaning of terrorism, the chanting then

Prepare bows and arrows for blasphemy
Prepare white swords
162 Contesting the Saudi State

Take from our enemies red hearts and necks

Let blood flow on soil
Like a glorious river
Tell the world and repeat
This is the meaning of terrorism
The message of other characters in the film centres on the decriminalisa-
tion of the perpetrator and the humanisation of the martyr. The film blurs
the boundary between victim and victimiser, and deconstructs well-
rehearsed arguments against jihad. The various Jihadis in the film face the
challenge of responding to Saudi claims that they are criminals, lacking a
clear message, and in favour of killing other Muslims rather than infidels.
A Jihadi responds by asking how someone who spent twenty years
defending Muslims in Afghanistan against the Soviets can turn into a
criminal targeting Muslims. He adds that ‘killing Muslims’ in Saudi
Arabia would be easier than killing infidels, as the latter reside in well-
secured homes and are difficult to reach.
The film also demonises the other, the enemy, a group of world leaders
(such as George Bush), and Arab and Muslim local ‘agents’ of world
powers (for example, Crown Prince Abdullah and Interior Minister
Prince Nayef). Speeches by Saudi leaders are played as evidence of their
treason, and association with and subservience to infidels. In one speech,
the Crown Prince is reported as saying to George Bush that ‘a small
minority (al–fia al-dhalla) poisoned our solid friendship and tarnished
the image of Islam, but we are determined to fight it with all our means.’
Al-Khalidi sends a message to Abdullah asking him to repent and stop
privileging secular intellectuals, and associating with infidels. If he does
not listen, then he faces the sword.
This film, like many other media clips that flood the internet after every
suicide bombing or attack, represents another dimension of contempo-
rary jihad, which has so far escaped analysts and commentators. Jihad is
not only about theological treatises such as that of Sheikh Nasir al-Fahad
discussed earlier in this chapter. It is also not solely concerned with puri-
fying the Arabian Peninsula and defeating its despots and pharaohs. Jihad
is a performance, celebrating heroes in a land where there are none. Saudi
youth are denied a symbol for defiance. Their local media is saturated
with old preachers calling for total obedience to the ruler, citing Quranic
verses and Hadiths discouraging individual opinion, initiative and inter-
pretation. Such media productions require the viewer to submit, obey
and follow a single interpretation and worldview. Saudi youth surf the
internet, downloading Badr al-Riyadh and other al-Qaida productions in
search of rebellion, assertion of the self and individuality, against a well-
developed machinery whose main purpose is to censor not only the
Struggling in the way of God at home 163

internet but all alternative visions that may circulate in the public sphere.
Zaffat al-shahid in Badr al-Riyadh is not only a celebration of life and
death; it is also a ritual of rebellion and defiance, with a clear message
reaching thousands of viewers. In the modern world, jihad is the perfor-
mance par excellence. However, Jihadi films are today competing with
another genre of video clips and popular culture productions that domi-
nate Arab satellite music channels such as Prince al-Walid ibn Talal’s con-
troversial Rotana television channel. The latter proved to be extremely
popular among young people not only in Saudi Arabia but in the Arab
world as a whole.
Badr al-Riyadh glorifies a privatised jihad in a globalised world where
the media create images of a monotonous world, repeat well-rehearsed
arguments and promote one message, despite the fact that globalisation
was expected to generate diversity and pluralism. At one level, globalisa-
tion did offer a glimpse of this hoped-for diversity, but at several others it
suppressed local culture, authenticity and tradition. Jihadi discourse
responds to the challenge of globalisation and its alleged discontents
using the same weapon that is believed to threaten authentic tradition.
The resurgence of Jihadi discourse and practice in Saudi Arabia should
be understood as a local response to this globalisation. This is clearly
demonstrated in Jihadi views on women, honour and shame, all believed
to be under threat from the champions of the alleged globalised crusade
of the unbelievers.

Gendered jihad: women, honour and shame

In Saudi society, women have always been viewed as symbols of the
nation’s piety, a barometer of its commitment to Islam and Arab tradi-
tion.34 The state enforces this view as it polices public space under the
guidance of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition
of Vice, in search of immoral behaviour, potentially generated by the
sheer presence of women in the public sphere. Segregated, veiled women
in black cloaks have become a symbol of identity in cities indistinguish-
able from any major cosmopolitan space in Dallas or Houston. On the
one hand, the state claims to ‘protect’ women; it does so for its own pur-
poses, mainly to assert its legitimacy as an Islamic state. Society also imi-
tates the state in its obsession with restricting women, but for different
reasons, mainly to guard against rapid change and alien intruders. Early
in the twentieth century, the majority of Saudis perceived the presence of
foreign immigrants as a necessary evil, needed to modernise the country
in the absence of local skills and expertise. However, since the 1980s,
this presence has become problematic – not only economically, but also
164 Contesting the Saudi State

culturally and politically. While economic dependence on foreign labour

was grudgingly tolerated, reliance on American military assistance has
generated heated debate.
Over a very short period of time, Saudi Arabia moved from a small-scale
traditional society in the 1970s, in which face-to-face interaction was the
norm, to a society inhabiting an urban space shared with a multinational
population of Arab, Western and Asian immigrants, expatriates and
workers, the majority of whom are male. Society responded to the chal-
lenge of hosting a substantial foreign population in several ways. It
imposed strict segregation on its immigrant population, translated into
lavish, and not-so–lavish, residential compounds and neighbourhoods
where they were expected to live. It also imposed a strict code of behav-
iour, limiting interaction between Saudis and foreigners to the workplace,
and revisited what is believed to be the last frontier in resisting penetration
by the outside world: the female sphere. As a result, women paid a high
price as they were seen as the last ‘battlefield’, to be defended, protected,
sheltered, and even restricted, oppressed and excluded in pursuit of
‘guarding’ men’s honour, and limiting the possibility of ‘shame’ being
inflicted on men as a result of female behaviour or the violation of females
by outsiders. Suddenly Saudi society became more restrictive in regulating
the female sphere. While men tolerated contact with foreigners in the
workplace, they did everything they could to restrict their own women’s
contact with outsiders, with the exception of course of Arab female teach-
ers, instructors, doctors, nannies (in the case of wealthy women) and other
indispensable outsiders, for example male drivers. Society allowed its
women to be driven by foreigners, as their foreignness and low status guar-
anteed their inferiority to Saudi women, but restricted women from enter-
ing the public sphere, especially that which has become the sole domain of
Saudi and other men. Women who previously worked in markets and
fields, where they intermingled freely with men, had to be restrained as
this public sphere turned into potentially hostile and alien space.
Instead of creating grounds for the amelioration of the status and rights
of women, modernity led to greater restrictions on women. The state
restricted female marriages to ajnabi (foreigners), a category that inclu-
ded foreign Arabs and Muslims. It also protected the strict sex segrega-
tion in the public sphere through its various law-enforcing agencies and
modern technology. For example, modern communication technology
has allowed strict segregation in universities, where female students see
and communicate with male lecturers via videos. Children of women who
married outsiders were denied nationality, thus excluding them from citi-
zenship, the welfare state and its benefits. The state was an active agent in
enforcing a restrictive code despite its apparent interest in the welfare and
Struggling in the way of God at home 165

education of women. In 2006 new legislation required shops selling lin-

gerie to employ women only, in a move to appease the rising Islamist dis-
content and ameliorate unemployment rates among women. Outspoken
members of the Saudi religious establishment objected to enforcing
the law. To resist female employment, they missed an opportunity to
‘Islamise’ the selling of female lingerie, a position that brings to mind
their objections to female driving.
While the state used women as a token of its piety in a desperate
attempt to enhance its own Islamic credentials, Jihadis considered
women a token of their rebellion, defiance and assertion of Islamic iden-
tity, pride and autonomy. Jihad was not only an Islamic duty to defend the
land of Islam but was also a gendered obligation to protect women from
the onslaught of alien cultures, corrupting media, state oppression and
Western penetration. In Jihadi discourse, jihad is not only a defence of
Islam and Muslims but is also a resistance to local and global agents who
violate men’s honour and bring them shame through a systematic viola-
tion of Muslim women. Both American troops in Saudi Arabia and the
Saudi state are portrayed as contributing to this violation. Examples of
American ‘aggression’ draw on images from Afghanistan, Israel and Iraq.
Israeli and American soldiers searching Muslim women at checkpoints
and inside their homes give ample opportunities to illustrate the violation.
Saudi state violation of women is represented through a portrayal of the
state as an agent of moral corruption and secularisation via its support
and sponsorship of a media empire that corrupts the youth of the nation.
Jihadis claim that Saudi princes do not respect the Islamic tradition, but
endeavour to normalise moral laxity, degeneration and sin. The Jiddah
Economic Forums in which women participated in 2004 and 2005
brought about themes relating to the corrupting influence of the state.
The picture of Madeleine Albright sitting on an armchair in the front row
during the conference, unveiled and with her legs exposed, came to repre-
sent not only the ‘corruption and moral degeneration’ of an ‘American
Jewish women’ but also the Saudi state. The fact that Saudi women
attend these conferences and are now allowed to participate in for
example the Jiddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry as voters and
candidates gives more substance to Jihadi claims.
In Jihadi discourse the politics of defiance is not only anchored in
Islamic duty, it is deeply rooted in the discourse about women, honour
and shame. A recurrent theme centres on the association between sub-
servience to infidels and the violation of Muslim women. The local despot
is not only an oppressor who does not rule according to the revealed
message of God but vigorously contributes to the emasculation of Arab
men by ahirat al-rum (‘Roman prostitutes’), a reference to the presence of
166 Contesting the Saudi State

female American soldiers on Saudi soil for over a decade. The fact that
Saudi Arabia was defended by American women in the Gulf War was
viewed as the emasculation of its male population, especially the armed
forces, a theme that is regularly reiterated in Jihadi discourse. Such images
existed in Jihadi literature long before the torture of Iraqi prisoners in Abu
Ghraib prison by American soldiers – both male and female – entered the
public sphere in 2004. The local despot is often referred to as dayuuth, a
strong abhorrent term describing the pimp, especially the one who trades
his own maharim (the taboo female relatives such as mother, daughter,
sister, etc.). The despot is transferred here from the realm of politics to
that of morality, invoking images of sin and punishment resulting from the
violation of divine law. Above all, the violation of women is attributed to
the contribution of two agents: the infidels and the local despot.
Jihadi sheikh Issa al-Oshan (d. 2004), known as Muhammad Ahmad
Salim, advised Saudi Jihadis against ‘going to seek jihad in Iraq or else-
where’ and encouraged them to stay at home where they are needed.35 He
elaborates that this is not because the situation in Iraq is confused and
unstable and that there is no banner to fight under, but because the prior-
ity should be the local context. Al-Oshan moves away from the duty to
defend the global umma to the necessity of guarding against the violation
of local women. He mentions a story that brought shame to a Saudi Jihadi
who was fighting with the Taliban against the troops of the Northern
Alliance during the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. Al-Oshan’s
friend told him that a Northern Alliance soldier asked him why a Saudi
Arab was fighting in Afghanistan. The Saudi Jihadi answered that he
wanted to defend the Muslim emirate of Taliban. The Afghan soldier
replied, ‘How could you come to Afghanistan while the Americans are
with your sister in Saudi Arabia?’ At this point in the conversation, the
Jihadi felt shame. Al-Oshan argues that a Saudi cannot defend the honour
of other Muslims while his own house is violated. This is a good reason to
‘break the cross first in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, to set the land
on fire so that no cross could feel secure’.
As gendered discourse, jihad draws on cultural values, with specific ref-
erence to male–female relations, the violation of women and the obliga-
tion to defend one’s honour before seeking to do the same for other
Muslims. In Saudi Arabia, jihad is a response to the emasculation of men,
who are subjected to state repression in the context of prison and torture
chambers. Al-Harbi, the suicide bomber in Badr al-Riyadh, painfully
recounts the experience of his friend in al-Ruways prison. He says that
during a long and painful interrogation session, his friend and his wife
(described as a respectable tribal woman, a hurra, a free woman (not a
slave)) were subjected to the most humiliating treatment. He claims that
Struggling in the way of God at home 167

his friend, after being paraded naked, was forced to have sexual inter-
course with his wife in front of the interrogators. This not only violates the
honour of the free woman as a result of an act committed by her husband,
who has lost his ability to defend her honour, but also dishonours the
man. Rather than being the defender of women’s honour, the male pris-
oner, emasculated and humiliated by state agents, is turned into its viola-
tor. He collapsed, sobbing and crying, according to al-Harbi. While it is
impossible to verify the authenticity of this story, it is nevertheless a pow-
erful statement in Jihadi propaganda that plays on honour and the viola-
tion of honour. These images blur the boundaries between protector and
violator of women. The helpless Muslim male is portrayed as being forced
by the despot to violate his own honour.
The connection between jihad, on the one hand, and women, honour
and shame, on the other, invokes the role of women in this duty. Are
women expected to join the Jihadis? Sheikh Nasir al-Fahad provides a
fatwa in this regard. He responds to two questions:
q : What is the nature of female jihad and are women required to go out seeking
jihad? Please answer with regard to defensive and offensive jihad.
s h e i k h a l - fa h a d : In general, women are not required to go for jihad but their
exit with male Jihadis to cure the ill and the wounded and to fetch water for
the thirsty is permissible. In Ibn Abbas’s Hadith, the Prophet used to raid
with women who look after the wounded and gain booty. Umm Atiyyah
confirms that ‘we used to go on raid with the Prophet to nurse the ill and
there was booty for us’. Also it is permissible for women to fight directly in
some situations. This is what Safiyyah bint Abd al-Mutalib did when she hit
a Jew with a pole and killed him in battle. Women must get permission from
their guardians before going and must be accompanied by mahram [a male

While there is no conclusive evidence in support of women directly par-

ticipating in combat, there is ample evidence to suggest that women must
be involved in other capacities, one of which is to support male relatives
involved in jihad.37 For this purpose, the al-Qaida branch in the Arabian
Peninsula published al-Khansa, a sister electronic magazine to Sawt al-
Jihad, named after a famous Muslim female poet who lost several sons in
jihad. The magazine instructs women on how to reconcile jihad with
family life. According to the editorial board, the magazine is published by
an organisation called the Women’s Media Bureau in the Arabian
Peninsula. It owes its publication to the leader of jihad in the Arabian
Peninsula, Abdulaziz al-Muqrin (d. 2004).38 The magazine advises
women on how to educate their children in the jihad culture, in addition
to giving instructions in first aid and nursing the wounded, thus echoing
the expectation regarding women’s participation in jihad from an Islamic
168 Contesting the Saudi State

point of view. The magazine does not, however, exclude women

from active combat, as the instructions in carrying and handling arms
The discourse of the struggle for the way of God which encourages
confrontation, resistance and domination is not only anchored in reli-
gion and politics; it is a cultural whole which defines a way of life for the
Muslim male, the privatised self in a globalised world. Above all, it
tackles the last line of defence, the remaining guarded fortress: women in
Saudi Arabia. As gendered discourse, jihad not only promises liberation
from the domination of ‘infidels’, but also a defence of the most cher-
ished female, whose violation dishonours and shames men. Violence is
generated not simply by adherence to globalised ideologies and move-
ments but through the regional and sub-regional disputes which have
their origins in the complexities of local political history and cultural
practices.40 To understand the Jihadi trend in Saudi Arabia, one must
situate it in the local context. Jihadis are a response to contradictions
generated by a political leadership professing adherence to Islam, while
the reality attests to something different. Jihadism is today defined as ille-
gitimate violence, but in many respects this violence is a mirror of
another type of violence – that of the state. Certain types of violence can
be considered legitimate, not only by the Saudi state but also by the
international community. In the aftermath of 11 September and under
the banner of the ‘War on Terror’, Saudi state violence remains more or
less outside the realm of condemnation. Violations of human rights are
occasionally mentioned by international organisations, but remain
unproblematic for countries that claim to uphold these rights at home
and encourage them abroad. While Badr al-Riyadh included clear refer-
ences to state violence (for example, torture and humiliation in prisons),
in the following section, we consider more subtle practices of indirect
violence by the state.

Repentance: violence to renounce violence

State repression, manifested in long prison sentences without trial, led to
tarajuat (going back on previous intellectual and political positions),
especially by outspoken Sahwis, who after years in prison in the 1990s
were transformed into a loyal opposition. When faced with the rise of
local Jihadi preachers, the state used these Sahwi ulama to ‘orchestrate’
the repentance of the Jihadis. They volunteered to play the role of media-
tors between the state and Jihadis. The state used the Sahwi ex-prisoners
to deliver ‘peace’ when they offered to provide assistance in guiding
the Jihadis to the right path, after straying in thought and practice.
Struggling in the way of God at home 169

Three Saudi Jihadi ulama, Nasir al-Fahad, Ahmad al-Khalidi and Ali
al-Khodayr, declared their tawba (repentance) in several television pro-
grammes broadcast in November and December 2003.
Nasir al-Fahad ‘repented’ in 2003 when Saudi television showed him
being interviewed by a Sahwi preacher, Sheikh Aidh al-Qarni.41 The pro-
gramme was aimed at establishing that al-Fahad was not qualified to issue
fatwas, especially the one related to excommunication of ‘those who assist
Americans’; that Americans in Saudi Arabia are muahadin, infidels with
whom Muslims have peace as a result of an oath (ahd); and that his
repentance was the result of serious reflection in prison, without any pres-
sure or coercion from the state. Al-Fahad clearly declared that his repen-
tance was a result of lessons received in prison from people of knowledge.
He admitted that he was not qualified to issue religious opinions and that
it was nobler to admit error than to continue to hold mistaken views
which encourage violence.
The repentance session started with al-Fahad announcing his erro-
neous judgment regarding the obligation to remove infidels from the
Arabian Peninsula. He added that violence in Riyadh tarnished the image
of Islam and Muslims, wasted resources and brought disaster. He
renounced the right to give opinions on excommunication, stressing that
takfir remains a prerogative of established ulama, mainly the Council of
Senior Ulama. With respect to rebelling against the ruler, al-Fahad stated
that this is not justified in a country such as Saudi Arabia. He concluded
that infidels in the land of Muslims should be protected and their wealth
guarded because they hold visas, issued by the Saudi authorities, and the
visa is a contract which brings infidels under the protection of Muslims.
He rejected any call for destroying Western interests in Saudi Arabia. He
added that such destruction is permissible only if wali al-amr declares war
on infidels. Al-Fahad warned Saudi youth against the temptation to ‘go
out’ for jihad in Iraq. He described the fighting as jihad fitna, a combat
that leads to chaos and discord among Muslims. He revoked the privati-
sation of jihad and insisted that it is permissible only under the banner of a
Muslim ruler, the only person who can call for jihad. Al-Fahad moved
from being a rebel scholar to one fully endorsing the official Wahhabi
religio-political discourse.
Al-Fahad renounced his earlier fatwa regarding the permissibility of
using women and children as human shields in combat (al-tatarus bi l-
nisa), a reference to the fact that women (infidel or otherwise) might be
caught in violence. He argued that such a fatwa was current in early
Islamic times but today the context is different.
In 2006, al-Fahad remains behind bars, which casts doubt over the
sincerity of his apparently changed views. Perhaps the state finds it
170 Contesting the Saudi State

difficult to trust his televised statements. It is also possible that the Saudi
government is under pressure from the United States to keep him in
prison. However, the fact that al-Fahad remains imprisoned may suggest
that the state does not fully trust its own propaganda. In the absence of
independent reporting or access to the prisoner, we cannot rule out the
possibility that al-Fahad’s repentance may have been forced or staged.
Therefore, no conclusive evidence can be presented here. After all, to
reconsider early opinions and denounce previous convictions can be a
healthy sign, but there is always room for expressing what one does not
believe in. Here we enter the realm of the inner self, where assertions are
difficult to make.
Several months after the televised repentance session, a letter attrib-
uted to Nasir al-Fahad and signed by him appeared on several internet
sites.42 While it is equally difficult to establish the authenticity of this
letter, it carried a strong message to his audience. He clearly stated that
any opinions expressed on television while he was in captivity (asr)
cannot be a true reflection of his beliefs. Al-Fahd refers to coercion
(qahr), which forced his repentance, and confirms that the state holds
power over him. The state, in his opinion, is the strong agent (qawi), while
he is weak (daif). He adds that the state has the upper hand, but that it
cannot possibly win his heart and change his mind.
The theme of tarajuat and tawba is discussed in a pamphlet which aims
to respond to the televised repentance sessions of the three Jihadi schol-
ars. Sheikh Abdullah ibn Nasir al-Rashid argues that prisons are sites of
coercion rather than compulsion.43 It is unlikely that truth manifests itself
in the despot’s prison. Therefore, it is difficult to assess the status of state-
ments made by Jihadi ulama in which they renounce previous opinions.
In a manner reminiscent of a tradition that does not consider confessions
under duress or torture legitimate evidence, al-Rashid invokes the
context of prison and torture as limiting one’s free will. Any renunciation
of previous opinions in such a context is defined as tarajuat qasriyya
(forced repentance).
The repentance sessions were well publicised in official media.
Intellectuals, religious scholars and laymen debated the television pro-
grammes and presented them as success stories. The main champions
were the state and the Sahwi ulama who helped deliver the repentance
statements. So-called liberal writers presented these broadcasts as
reflections of the wise spirit of dialogue adopted by the state. Others saw
them as signs of the complete defeat of Jihadis. Liberal newspapers such
as al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Watan rejoiced over the end of thulathi al-
takfir (the trinity of excommunication).44 Some Sahwi ulama warned
against over using these sessions to score illegitimate gains, a reference
Struggling in the way of God at home 171

to the way liberals commented on the television episodes. Sheikh Aidh

al-Qarni applauded the Jihadi sheikhs for their courage and ability to
revisit previous opinions. He argued that admitting error is better than
continue to err. He used the repentance to demonstrate ‘the good fitra
[nature] of the people, who are brought up on true Islam’.45 However,
the involvement of Sahwis in the repentance dramas did not go unno-
ticed. Liberal writers pointed attention to the possible gains that might
accrue to them as a result of their mediation with Jihadis. Several
writers used the occasion to indirectly accuse Sahwis of sharing a
common intellectual platform with Jihadis. One prince even went as
far as accusing Sahwis of being the intellectual godfathers of the Jihadis.
Sahwis were incensed by such public accusations, and one asked for a
public debate with the prince to ‘clarify the issues and absolve Sahwis
of any responsibility for Jihadi violence’. His calls for debate were
The positioning of Sahwis as ‘mediators’ between the state and Jihadis
incurred the wrath of underground Jihadi ulama, who endeavoured to
defeat the Sahwis on the internet. Sahwis acquired a new label, gafwa
(‘asleep’) as opposed to sahwa (‘awakened’), thus contributing further to
the rift between the various Islamist trends and enforcing a political and
religious fragmentation among ex-comrades.
It is very difficult to claim with certainty that the repentance sessions,
together with the royal pardons granted to Jihadis who gave themselves
up to the authorities, had a positive impact on the development of
events in the year that followed. In 2004 Saudi Arabia remained
hostage to the Jihadis, whose attacks became more daring. The
American consulate and Ministry of Interior bombings in December
2004 proved that they were still capable of hitting at the heart of the
American presence in Saudi Arabia and humiliating the regime through
targeting one of the most important state institutions. Repentance,
especially the Saudi televised version, was confined to winning the
media battle while the state tried to win the military campaign on
the ground. If instruction and re-education in Saudi prisons resulted in
the repentance described above, it is clear that the same prisons must
have had a lot to do with producing the fiercest Jihadis. Several people
who provided military and intellectual support for jihad had spent time
in prison, for example the above-mentioned al-Harbi, Abdulaziz
al-Muqrin and Yusif al-Ayri; the last two were leaders of al-Qaida in
the Arabian Peninsula. Before his recent imprisonment, al-Fahad
himself had previously been a cellmate of two other famous Jihadi
sheikhs, his intellectual mentors, Sheikhs al-Khodayr and al-Oqla in
al-Hayer prison in Riyadh.
172 Contesting the Saudi State

Jihad: self-annihilation, purposeful behaviour or agent of

Today Jihadism is an underground movement that manifests itself in
violent attacks. Its discourse is debated in rest-houses, mosques, private
gatherings in the poor and crowded neighbourhoods of Riyadh and
Jiddah, the elite intellectual salons, five-star international hotels, research
centres and remote farms. This debate is clearly articulated in internet
discussion forums and on Jihadi websites. Religious discourse comfort-
ably intermingles with reflections on Muslim–infidel relations, contem-
porary politics and cultural notions about femininity, masculinity and
violation of honour. The debate is supported by media productions,
poetry, chanting and iconography, not to mention instruction in how to
use weapons, to survive in the desert without water and food, and to seek
cover within society, thus generating a cultural package that reaches much
further than suicide bombers aim to. Contemporary jihad is a culture that
flourishes in a specific historical and political context in addition to being
a religious duty. It has become a privatised obligation in the age of global-
isation, thanks to mass communication.
Violent acts are expressions of cultural codes imbued with great
meaning for both perpetrators and victims. Rather than being at the
margins of culture, violence has perhaps moved to its centre.47 Scholars
who analyse the relationship between violence and religion tend to
emphasise that a cultural approach encompasses a wide range of variables
that make jihad or any other form of religiously motivated violence
authentic, inspiring and powerful.48
Such reflections on violence rightly situate it in the realm of culture.
However, while it might have several social, economic, political and reli-
gious causes, this violence does not represent a yearning for old times,
despite its rhetoric. Jihad is not pursued for a return to the status quo ante,
to the glorious past and the tradition of pious ancestors. It is a culture that
promises a transformation of the present to achieve a better future, and is
pursued by individuals who believe in their ability to change the world.
Outsiders conceive of jihad as self-annihilation in a world where the
balance of power is clearly in favour of the West. However, from the Jihadi
point of view it is purposeful behaviour. In fact, Jihadis believe that it is
the only religiously sanctioned response to this imbalance.
In the context of Jihadi violence, the debates on politics and religion
moved much faster than ever before. Since the early 1990s, debating
religion, politics, relations with the West, the status of women, the reli-
gious establishment, the new Islamism, the ruling family, the national
debt and many other urgent issues are constantly being considered by an
Struggling in the way of God at home 173

increasingly literate population which has at its disposal multiple sources

of information. The 11 September attacks increased the speed and inten-
sity of the debate even further. Under the pressure of violence, the Saudi
government was forced to respond and act rapidly. It changed the reli-
gious curriculum, sacked religious scholars, restricted charitable work,
established a National Dialogue Forum and introduced limited munici-
pal elections in February 2005. The regime presented itself as the cham-
pion of reform. While it dismisses any suggestion that its timid and
hesitant reform takes place under American pressure, it will never admit
that Jihadi violence may have been a wake-up call.
Jihadism is a culture of transition that may lead to a kind of modernity
different from that celebrated in official discourse and often measured in
ample statistics about the number of hospitals, airports, paved roads and
highways. Saudi modernity brought the alien trappings of material goods,
consumerism and literacy. It also consolidated a centralised authoritarian
state that destroyed local political actors, with the exception of those who
were willing to be co-opted. Modernity brought about increased urbanisa-
tion, dislocation and the erosion of old tribal and kinship loyalties, but
failed to replace the latter with alternative modes of organisation such as
independent cooperatives, associations, political parties and circles for
support and representation. While Saudi modernity silenced the tradi-
tional religious diversity within Islam, it allocated massive resources for
the propagation of one interpretation of religious discourse, although in
the face of unprecedented proliferation of religious knowledge, it became
impossible for the state to extend its control. With the centralisation of
religious institutions came the decentralisation – and even fragmentation –
of religious discourse. The old religious monopoly of the Salafi–Wahhabi
consenting tradition began to be gradually eroded by various groups, of
which Jihadis are but one.
Although modernity empowered many Saudis, it disempowered a
massive population that is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Moder-
nity generated discontent among those who could not be included in its
parameters. In recent times and under the fluctuation of wealth, Saudi
modernity failed to include as many people as possible. In fact, this very
modernity contributed to the systematic exclusion of a wide circle of
people who were able to learn its alphabet and communicate using its
own language, but were for some reason excluded. It resulted in a class of
dispossessed and excluded people who lacked either the right skills in a
competitive market, belonged to marginalised groups and regions or
failed to be part of patronage networks. However, Saudi modernity also
had beneficiaries, and created an awareness and an ability to imagine an
alternative existence. Modern communication technology and rapid
174 Contesting the Saudi State

travel speeded up this awareness and widened the gap between reality and
The drawing of Saudi Arabia into Western modernity generated a local
response with its own momentum. The country initially absorbed
selected aspects of Western modernity and violently rejected others.
Jihadism and Western modernity share a common belief in the ability of
man to change the world. Both are sure that they hold the key to advance-
ment and progress. However, Western modernity held reason to be the
key to such advancement, whereas Jihadism invoked faith.
Jihadis may well have accelerated change but it remains to be seen
whether they can survive in a time of stability.49 The debate between
those who support jihad and those who denounce it continues, and will
probably do so for the foreseeable future. The debate is not simply about
removing infidels from the land of Islam or toppling despotic regimes. It
is about sincerely believing Muslim men and women and their agonising
journey through a changing world. The following chapter captures a
glimpse of this ongoing debate, through the life, words and thoughts of
one man.
5 Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and the
jihad obligation

l ewis atiyat allah: They will write books about me.

abu ya sir: Why? What is your achievement?
l e w i s at i yat a l l a h : Nothing apart from proving that you have achieved
abu ya sir: What have you got to say now?
l ewis atiyat allah: Whatever says any Lewis Atiyat Allah to another. More
practical and logical proofs justifying the jihad option and the bankruptcy of
your strategies. Lewis Atiyat Allah, Min buraydah ila manhatin, p. 23

Lewis Atiyat Allah is a Saudi intellectual and Islamist activist, who has
taken refuge in the bulletin and discussion forums of the internet
because his message is today subject to censorship. He is also an al-
Qaida supporter who has been forced to go underground. Lewis came
to prominence under this pseudonym after 11 September, an event that
precipitated a substantial schism within the Saudi Salafi scene. Since
then, Lewis’s articles, commentaries on current events and evaluations
of the Saudi regime have appeared in several well-known Saudi internet
websites and discussion boards.1 Lewis also had his own website, which
was closed down by the hosting company for security reasons.2 It is
more than likely that the virtual Lewis is currently known by his real
name in the real world; he may well be a public figure. However, for fear
of persecution and arrest in the country where he lives, he chose an
unusual pseudonym: a Christian first name, followed by a Muslim
We can only speculate on why this character chose a rather unusual
nom de plume. The name Lewis brings to mind several French kings,
whose names appear in Lewis’s articles, together with references to
Christian clergy and the church. In one article, he refers to King Fahd as
‘al-malik Lewis’, evoking images of dictatorship, divine kingship and
alliance with a church.3 However, the second part of his name, Atiyat
Allah, anchors him in an Islamic tradition, perhaps a counter-kingship
that is bestowed on the believers by Allah.
Lewis himself explains his nom de plume in a very simple manner,
176 Contesting the Saudi State

which reflects a rather unusual phase in his early days, when he had a
sense of humour, but is now incompatible with his current Islamist preoc-
cupation. Some time ago he travelled to the United States. He recounts
the conversation he had with the immigration officer upon arrival:

immigratio n o ffic e r: What is your name, sir?

l ewis: I think. Um. Well, I’m Lewis.
immigratio n o ffic e r: But it is not the name on your passport!
l ewis: You can say that I’m gonna change it!
This is how I became Lewis.

Lewis’s long articles are usually eagerly awaited both by many committed
Islamists looking for inspiration and intelligence officers and experts on
terrorism who surf the internet websites and discussion boards for jihad
literature and al-Qaida supporters in an attempt to understand the phe-
nomenon or arrest the enemy.4
Lewis is perhaps one of the most popular of the Jihadi Islamist internet
writers.5 One of his literary contributions on the internet received 18,576
hits. Saudi Islamists read his articles with enthusiasm. His accessible and
eloquent contributions generate heated debates and counter-arguments
between those who praise him and those who condemn him. Lewis also
enters into dialogue with people in Saudi Arabia whose identities are
known and who can afford to write under their real names as they have
rejected or suspended the obligation of jihad. He also converses with
others – usually Western specialists on terrorism, as he claims – who want
to understand the duty of jihad, which Lewis strongly supports, enthusi-
astically justifies and clandestinely defends. The virtual Lewis articulates
a vision in defence of jihad but perhaps the real Lewis suspends the duty
as he cannot afford at the moment, an exposure which would no doubt
lead to arrest, a fate similar to that of the Jihadi ulama discussed in the
last chapter.
It is difficult to know where Lewis is. Yet wherever he is, it seems that
expressing open support for al-Qaida is taboo and has serious conse-
quences. Under these circumstances Lewis chooses to conduct a covert
jihad, ‘bil lisan wa laysa bil sinan’ (with the tongue, not with weapons). At
heart, Lewis remains a committed Jihadi, although in an open environ-
ment he would not be a foot-soldier. He is more likely to be a theoretician/
strategist/interpreter of the jihad rather than a practitioner. He is probably
a middle-aged man, in his forties. Given his writing skills, education,
knowledge and style, the real Lewis is likely to be part of the political wing
or the propaganda department of the Jihadi Islamist movement, provid-
ing intellectual input in support of the overall strategies.6 However,
neither Lewis nor al-Qaida is conventional. Lewis belongs to a trend
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 177

rather than a hierarchical organisation, with an identified division of

labour and clearly assigned roles. He may or may not have direct or indi-
rect channels of communication with al-Qaida. However, he writes in
such a way as to support and glorify jihad.
Both the virtual and the real Lewis can be considered munathir wa
mudafi an al-jihad (a theoretician and defender of jihad). Unlike tradi-
tional religious scholars, he writes in a modern and accessible way,
reflecting knowledge of politics, international relations and an ability to
analyse the world – from his point of view, of course. However, he also has
a solid religious education, which enables him to intersperse his discourse
with Quranic verses, Hadiths and references to early religious scholars,
history and tradition.
Lewis is a committed Jihadi Salafi. He is also a hybrid in the sense that
he successfully combines his religious identity and commitment to Islam
with a rather deep immersion in Western discourse and languages. He is
not only fluent in English, he is also an articulate reproducer of Western
concepts and methodology.7 He has mastered the art of dialogue accord-
ing to Western standards, although he may not want to acknowledge his
reproduction of this discourse. He also uses the method of interpreta-
tion, analysis and conventions that are common in Western discourse. In
addition to his commitment to defending faith worldwide, Lewis can be
regarded as a Najdi Salafi, thus locating his global religious message in
the confines of central Arabia and the Wahhabi call. He may object to
being labelled a Wahhabi Salafi. According to his testimony, he is the real
Salafi, the one who has not been ‘domesticated’ by Al-Saud, pejoratively
referred to in his articles as al-Sulul, a mock name which has become
commonly used by the Islamist opposition in Saudi Arabia to refer to the
ruling family, thanks to Lewis.8 He may have been influenced by modern
Islamist intellectuals, famous names associated with twentieth-century
Islamism such as Sayid Qutb, Abu Ala al-Mawdudi and theoreticians of
the Egyptian Jihadist movement, but he remains faithful to the early
Wahhabi tradition, especially that associated with Muhammad ibn Abd
al-Wahhab’s grandson, Sheikh Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Abd al-Latif
(d. 1969).9 Lewis is definitely a product of the Wahhabi reform move-
ment and its teachings, whose Jihadi branch is now referred to in
Western literature as neo-Salafis.10 He is not, however, concerned with
labels and trends. He remains in his own eyes a Muslim who follows the
right path. He is local but also global, not only in his personal biography
and sources of religious education but also in his cosmopolitan outlook
and travel.
Lewis is a real conversationalist. He engages his opponents in intense
debate, answers their queries, responds to their provocation and defends
178 Contesting the Saudi State

his point of view. A substantial part of his discourse is primarily directed

towards his fellow Salafis, mainly those who, in his opinion, not only
betrayed the Salafi movement by tatil faridhat al-jihad (suspending the
obligation of jihad), but also condemned his brand of Salafism. Since 11
September, Lewis’s opponents seem to be drawn from the so-called
Sururi Sahwis, discussed earlier. Others are pro-government ulama and
intellectuals, who openly declare their rejection of his strategy, at least in
the current international context. This condemnation revolves around
describing him and his likes as khawarij al-asr (contemporary Kharijites),
bughat (usurpers) and al-fia al-dhalla (the party that has gone astray),
threatening the community by rebelling against the rightful Muslim ruler,
and encouraging discord among Muslims; all carry serious religious pun-
ishments (hudud). It is important, however, to point out that such accusa-
tions by laymen using the internet are not necessarily grounded in serious
knowledge and scholarship in Islamic studies. The majority of those who
use such strong terminology in internet discussion boards are probably
not aware of the historical contexts in which such labels emerged.

Lewis the person

One of the most difficult tasks in drawing the contours of Lewis’s back-
ground and personality is access to the person and his narrative, which, if
traced correctly, would open a window through which we can gain a
glimpse of the complexity, tension and resolutions which this character has
faced throughout his life. Lewis’s current affiliation with the Jihadi trend is
a product of an evolution and a development, all reconstructed in this
chapter from information Lewis released about himself on the internet.
While it is not possible to cross-check this information, I have all reason to
believe that it represents an authentic and accurate description of a life that
is perhaps representative of a whole generation of Saudi men born in the
late 1950s and early 1960s. While Lewis is unique in his ability to articulate
his thoughts and in the strength of his convictions, his biography reflects
the drastic changes that have swept Saudi Arabia. In reconstructing Lewis’s
life history, I have no reason to consider his autobiography a fabrication.
What he says about himself remains an autobiography, a selective and fully
controlled narrative. My reconstruction is, however, partially mediated by
my translation of the text from Arabic and my organisation of the material.

The first conversion: from Sahwi Islamism to liberalism

I was Satan’s soldier then Satan became my soldier.
Lewis Atiyat Allah
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 179

Before introducing Lewis’s various debates with his opponents, it is

important to draw the contours of his personal journey to political
activism, which is marked by his conversion from Islamism to liberalism.
Like many young Saudis brought up in a world nothing like that of their
parents’ generation, it seems that Lewis went through a very difficult time
in his youth, beautifully alluded to in the above statement. His traditional
Salafi upbringing and later his commitment to the Sahwi Islamist trend
gave way to liberalism.
According to Lewis, his life can be seen as a series of conversions. He
had a traditional religious upbringing. His father was a Salafi and he grew
up in a Salafi environment. He learnt the Quran from his father, who later
sent him to Madina, where he studied in the Hadith College. He learnt
three thousand Hadiths from the Ahkam collection. As a young man he
became part of the so-called Sururi Sahwi movement in Saudi Arabia,
which flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a follower of Sheikh
Safar al-Hawali.
Lewis says that after this brief experience of Islamism ‘things happened
to him’, but without specifying the nature and impact of these ‘things’. As
a result, he admits that he lost his Islamic identity. Three years passed
after he graduated from university without being able to define the
meaning of ‘belonging to the umma’. It seems that this was his first per-
sonal and intellectual crisis in life.
He abandoned his Islamic awakening and became a liberal. At this stage
he began reading philosophical texts, for example the Encyclopaedia of
Abdulrahman Badawi, the story of Hayy ibn Yaqthan, Descartes, Spinoza
and Kant, in addition to the history and causes of the European
Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He was impressed and began
to condemn Islamic thought, as deep down his reference point was
‘Shakespeare and Voltaire’. In his own heart Lewis considered himself as
belonging to the ‘victorious party’, al-umma al-muntasira (the West). He
confesses that he forgot all his Islamic education with the exception of Ibn
Khaldun and his Introduction and Ibn Tufayl and his story ‘Hayy ibn
Yaqthan’. At this stage Lewis went to America.
Lewis returned to Saudi Arabia fully immersed in liberalism. He
describes himself as having become ‘modernist in literature and secular in
thought’. He began to defend democracy, human rights and the rights of
women, as defined by the West.
Lewis believes that in a previous time Satan occasionally tempted him.
He immersed himself in sins to the extent that he became one of Satan’s
disciples, subjected to his own whims. Lewis refers here to morality
and corruption as an escape from ‘loss of Arab identity and faith in
180 Contesting the Saudi State

Following this loss, Lewis lived ayam al-dhalal (the days of obscurity).
On one occasion, he endeavoured to use all his skills and charm to
mislead a young American woman, a representative of ‘the civilised
world’, using internet chat rooms. After several virtual encounters, the
woman fell in love with him and the flowers he used to send her. She told
him that she used to show the flowers to her friends and tell them that
they were from her ‘Arab boyfriend’ who owned an oil well. She later
asked him to marry her, but he declined. She then told him that she fre-
quented an Islamic centre and had converted to Islam, hoping that he
would change his mind and marry her. He declined the offer again, and
began to question how he contributed in his own sinful ways to creating
bad impressions about Islam and Muslims. At this juncture, Lewis
wished for death.
Lewis’s ‘illicit’ encounters with women seem to have been a foundation
for his return to Islamism. In addition to being an argumentative and
stubborn young man, immersed in dhalal (debauchery), who went as far
as to preach that smoking is not haram (forbidden), Lewis seems to have
mastered the art of flirtation to a high level. He tells us how he became an
expert in using the language of eyes to lure women to smile, and perhaps
more. According to him, the language of eyes is irresistible, and regardless
of a woman’s education and upbringing, she will eventually succumb to a
glance by a charming man like himself. This did not necessarily lead to an
illicit relationship, but exchanging glances would lead to mutual appreci-
ation and smiles because ‘the eye is the door to the soul’, according to
Lewis. He was self-confident in his abilities to ‘charm and defeat an army
of female resistance’, wherever he found it. He practised his skills in book-
shops, supermarkets and abroad.
Lewis was an experienced traveller who put his charm to the test in air-
ports. Travelling and being with strangers were moments of excitement.
He flirted with air hostesses, using a rather unusual entry into their hearts
– he would discuss the ozone layer with them. When in foreign lands –
Britain, for example – he sensed a ‘spiritual vacuum among women’,
which he obligingly tried to fill on regular occasions. He would describe
to an English woman how her face reflected fatigue, pain and suffering.
She would respond immediately, and engage him in conversation.
According to Lewis this approach is far more sophisticated and effective
than starting a conversation about the weather, as English people would
normally do. Lewis resists the conclusion that English women are loose or
easy targets, as he stresses that many would ignore his advances.
This period in Lewis’s life is described as a by-product of complete
‘intellectual corruption’, of which casual relations with women were one
aspect. He recounts his encounters with women and his ‘liberal’ attitude
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 181

to demonstrate the level of degeneration that he had reached before his

rediscovery of the meaninglessness of life without faith. During this
episode, he felt no guilt because he suspended religion as a moral force
capable of halting his immersion in sin. He even went as far as denying the
legitimacy of a religion, which forbids acts of immorality. At that point he
introduces the term ‘crisis’ (azma) to describe his situation. He argues
that it is most natural for love and closeness to develop between men and
women, and admits that even talking to a woman is pleasurable. Why then
does Islam restrict the interaction between men and women? He pro-
posed a solution: moulding and modifying religion to accommodate
human desires. This was his way to avoid guilt as he searched in the reli-
gious tradition for examples that would justify mixing between the sexes
and more relaxed public interaction with the opposite sex. The stories of
the early Muslim women (al-sahabiyyat) and their relations with men
became his reference point in a desperate attempt to justify what he calls
the contradiction between al-shar (jurisprudence) and the language of
the body, mainly his desires.
Lewis claims that at this stage he forgot the Quran – with the exception
of some verses, which he constantly remembered in solitude. These
verses summarised his newly acquired liberal convictions. Lewis felt like
the khubth (filth) ejected by the city, described in Hadith as ‘al-madina
tanfi khubthuha kama tanfi al-nar khubth al hadid’. Lewis was this
khubth. He continued to socialise with known Saudi liberals and engage
with their thought. Lewis admits that he began to admire someone whom
he had loathed previously when he was an Islamist Sahwi: Ghazi al-
Qusaybi – Saudi liberal writer, ex-ambassador to Britain, and in 2004
Minister of Labour.
Lewis had his second crisis when he admits that he discovered ‘the
emptiness of their life, namely the liberals’ and developed a revulsion
against their gatherings. He felt that Saudi liberals are like parrots, blindly
imitating the West. He believed that they were incapable of instigating any
serious change. For the second time, Lewis experienced a kind of turbu-
lence as he lost his second acquired identity as a secular liberal. He
became a tormented soul, having abandoned the certainties of his first
Islamic identity and his second acquired Western outlook.

The second conversion: back to Sahwa

Lewis’s account of his early flirtation with liberalism and adventures with
women reflects a tormented self immersed in behaviour and thoughts
implicitly considered immoral. He searched for a return to salvation, a
way out of his degeneration.
182 Contesting the Saudi State

One day he performed his ablution and sat holding the Quran. He sum-
marises his return to the right path:

I did not cry as happens in the story of Prophets who repent, but I felt that I was
the one addressed by the Quran. This was the turning point in my life. I continued
to search in the Quran for rational proofs. I found them in sura al-anam. Finally I
became like ahl al-araf, betwixt and between. I heard about al-Wasatiyya. I came
asking about what they offer and why they are called thus. Perhaps they have ideas
I can adopt. I am an ordinary person. I ask questions because I reject all artificial

Although Lewis admits that he felt happy in his liberal days, today he
feels pain and bitterness. He opted for salvation, as he felt tranquillity
when he was in a public space where he lowered his gaze (ghadh al-
basar). He also admits that suppressing his desire to look at women is not
easy, but that the peace that follows is eternal, and the pleasure that suc-
ceeds hardship is everlasting. At this stage Lewis was a reformed charac-
ter, a ‘born-again’ Muslim. He returned to Islamism but remained
independent, entering into heated discussion with Sururi Sahwis, his
early mentors and companions, and participating in discussion boards of
the Wasatiyya internet club, coordinated by Muhsin al-Awajy. However,
he was not to be satisfied by the ‘methodology’ of the Wasatiyya. His
heart was somewhere else.
At this stage – that is, in the post-11 September period – to be a born-
again Muslim was simply not enough. Lewis’s personal journey to salva-
tion became a serious mission to save his country, other Muslims and the
world. From this time on, he had a mission in life. Lewis revisited the
Sahwa camp, only to be disappointed by its position after 11 September.
Lewis found his salvation in a return to ‘an Islam manifested in
mosques, libraries, schools, universities and summer camps’.12 The
Islamic awakening (the Sahwa movement) included diverse Islamist
groups and orientations, the most important of which was the so-called
Sururi version, discussed earlier in this book. Lewis’s involvement in the
movement brought him to the conclusion that ‘Saudi society and state
oscillate between being totally non-Muslim in some aspects and less than
Muslim in others’.13
Lewis admits that throughout the 1990s, he was a follower of ulama al-
sahwa, including, among others, Sheikhs Salman al-Awdah, Safar al-
Hawali and Nasir al-Omar. His later adoption of the jihad obligation is
not a conversion or a departure from what those scholars preached, but it
takes the sahwa to its logical conclusion, which the above-mentioned
scholars have failed to do according to Lewis, given their reaction to the
events of 11 September.
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 183

The final confirmation: Lewis the Jihadi

So far we have followed Lewis through his various stages: Lewis as a
Salafi; Lewis as a liberal; Lewis as an independent Islamist with connec-
tions and in communication with the Jihadis throughout the late 1990s.
The final phase, discussed here, is Lewis as a confirmed Jihadi.
His position changed in the second half of the 1990s – more accu-
rately in 1998, when he admits to having had itisal (communication)
with Jihadis. Lewis committed himself to the Jihadi trend after 11
September 2001, when he had to make a final resolution (yahsum al-
khiyar). The main reason for this final conversion was his disap-
pointment with the Sahwi sheikhs, who signed a pamphlet after 11
September entitled How we can Coexist, which was a response to a pam-
phlet produced by a group of American intellectuals entitled What we
are Fighting For.
Having been shocked by the Sahwi sheikhs’ response to 11 September,
Lewis wrote an article, ‘Iflas al-islamiyyin’ (The Bankruptcy of Islamists),
which confirmed him in his position as a defender of jihad. This article
symbolised his final break with Sahwi Islamism and conversion to the
jihad option. Lewis argues that his abandonment of the Sahwi camp was a
result of the position of their famous sheikhs outlined in the pamphlet,
which, according to him, shocked all Salafis in Saudi Arabia. With ‘The
Bankruptcy of Islamists’, Lewis came to prominence as a daring writer.
He challenged the religious scholars who had dominated debate through-
out the 1990s – al-Hawali, al-Awdah and al-Omar. Because of their anti-
Americanism during the Gulf War of 1990, their critical stance towards
the government and their imprisonment until the late 1990s, these
sheikhs had become powerful symbols, capitalising on more than a
decade of resistance and personal suffering. In this article, Lewis
shattered the myth about these sheikhs, whose position and rhetoric
changed dramatically after they came out of prison, and more so after 11
According to Lewis, his eminence following the article on the bank-
ruptcy of Islamists was accidental. He uses the image of a play in which
people were bored with the monotony of the performance. In the audi-
ence there was one who was murmuring a song, possibly to overcome his
boredom. When people sitting around him heard his murmurs, they
asked him to go on stage and sing. He hesitated, but sang beautifully.
People started to applaud, and at that moment in the show Lewis the
Jihadi writer was born. The poetic of Lewis’s self-assessment of his pre-
eminence is a window from which to look at this personality. He
combines two contradictory characteristics, humility and strength.
184 Contesting the Saudi State

The events of 11 September 2001, which precipitated a major schism

within the Salafi awakening movement, had proved to be crucial for
Lewis. The Salafis were divided between those who openly supported Bin
Laden (the most famous were Sheikhs al-Oqla, Nasir al-Fahad and Ali al-
Khodayr) and those who distanced themselves from him without con-
demning him openly, for example Sheikhs Salman al-Awdah and Safar
al-Hawali. There were also official religious scholars who accused Bin
Laden of causing fitna (dissent), like the one of the early Kharijites. The
Sahwa sheikhs regarded the attack on New York as a cataclysmic event
unblessed by God. Despite Lewis’s training and intellectual proximity to
al-Hawali and al-Awdah, he decided to side with those who endorsed Bin
Laden and sanctioned the jihad option. Lewis laments the schism within
his movement, and cites the Arab poet who said:
Ualimuhu al-rimayat kuli yawmin
Falama ishtada saiduhu ramani
[Every day I teach him to shoot
When his hand became steady he shot me.]
Lewis took the preaching and teachings of ulama al-sahwa to their
logical conclusions when he decided to embrace the jihad not simply as
an option but as a duty, whose fulfilment is currently the responsibility
and programme of Bin Laden and al-Qaida. He declared the events in
New York a major success and a turning-point in the struggle against
American hegemony. His journey from sahwa Islamism to the jihad
trend should not be interpreted as a departure from the teachings of the
1990s Sahwi sheikhs. He admits that his choice does not represent a
serious departure from his intellectual Sahwi roots. The two Islamist
camps – the sahwa and the jihad – differ only in practice. While they
agree on the centrality of jihad as faridha (duty), they differ on the condi-
tions of its application. They also agree that the United States is the
enemy of Islam and Muslims and that it occupies the land of Muslims,
especially bilad al-haramayn – the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, but
disagree about when jihad should be declared, who has the right to
declare it, how it should be declared and whether the conditions
for declaring it are met. Moreover, there seems to be no consensus on
when jihad ceases to be fard kifaya (an obligation for a sufficient number
of people) and becomes fard ayn (an obligation incumbent on every
Lewis’s endorsement of jihad over whether 11 September served the
Salafi cause and Muslims in general marked a departure from the philos-
ophy of his ex-comrades. He also disagreed with their position regarding
the Saudi regime. The Sahwi sheikhs and the Jihadis agree that the
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 185

regime does not fully apply the sharia or abide by it in all aspects of
social, economic and political matters. However, the Sahwis implicitly
agree not to attack the regime or harm it at present, whereas the Jihadis do
not accept the strategy of a truce with the Saudi government.
Lewis does not give up hope that his early mentors, especially his intel-
lectual masters, ulama al-sahwa, will come to accept his point of view. For
this reason he has entered into an electronic dialogue with Abu Yasir, one
of the Sahwis, in an attempt to present his point of view and convince his
ex-comrade – now intellectual opponent – that suspending jihad is not
only un-Islamic but is also a futile policy.

Lewis Atiyat Allah and Abu Yasir: from Buraydah to

An important and lengthy internet dialogue between Lewis and
someone by the name of Abu Yasir appeared in the form of a small
booklet in Arabic bookshops in London. Lewis’s booklet, From
Buraydah to Manhattan, was published in 2003 by Dar al-Riyadh, an
imaginary publishing house. Previously this debate appeared on several
In this booklet, an interesting debate takes place between Lewis Atiyat
Allah and a fellow Salafi by the name of Abu Yasir, who belongs to the
other Salafi camp, presumably another Muslim intellectual who has
become ‘moderate’, perhaps after several years behind bars in Saudi
Arabia in the 1990s. Abu Yasir challenges our characterisation of
Salafis as he enters into a dialogue with Lewis. He represents the other
brand of Islamism, the one associated with ulama al-sahwa of the 1990s
and now abandoned by Lewis. Lewis and Abu Yasir share a profound
commitment to Islam, not only as a way of life but also as a solution to all
Before 11 September, Lewis and Abu Yasir undoubtedly belonged to
the same Islamist movement (tayar al-haraki), and probably knew each
other very well. However, after the events, the two followed different
paths. Lewis became covertly associated with the Jihadi Salafis and Abu
Yasir remained part of a Salafiyya with moderate Muslim Brotherhood
leanings. Abu Yasir is a haraki, an Islamist activist. According to Lewis,
the difference between himself and his interlocutor is not in mafahim
(understanding), but in tatbiqat (application). The main debate revolves
around the events of 11 September and the duty of jihad, which led to
schism within the Saudi Salafi Sahwi camp. They both see themselves as
true Muslims who are opposed to the official quietist Salafi trend, repre-
sented by the Saudi religious establishment.
186 Contesting the Saudi State

AbuYasir’s point of view

Abu Yasir poses a series of questions which were asked by many Saudi
Salafis following the 11 September attack. These fall within two main
themes. First, should jihad qitali (military struggle) be a priority over
jihad hadari (civilisational struggle) to deal with the concerns of the
Muslim community at this particular moment in time? Second, should
the battle be taken to the USA when there is a lot of scope for educating
Muslims by implementing grass-root programmes to raise social and
religious awareness? The latter question deals with whether the strategy
of military struggle against the ‘most powerful nation on earth’ is a
sound tactic when contemporary Muslims have no power comparable
to that of the United States. Abu Yasir’s questions reflect his rejection of
Bin Laden’s strategy. He argues that the decision to hit America was
detrimental to the Islamic dawa (call). The attack was, according to
Abu Yasir, carried out by ‘gangsters’ under the command of one person
– Bin Laden – himself, without resorting to the opinion of mainstream
ulama. Abu Yasir questions the religious legitimacy of killing innocent
people in New York who may not even support their government’s
policy towards the Muslim and Arab world. He believes that given the
state of backwardness prevalent in Muslim countries, which have fallen
under unjust rulers, attacking America did not represent a strategy but
an act of anger and revenge, whose consequences were harmful. The
attack led to the destruction of a young Muslim state, the Taliban gov-
ernment in Afghanistan, and also to aggression towards Muslims all
over the world.
Abu Yasir is hesitant when it comes to endorsing the umami (global)
approach of al-Qaida, which leads to overlooking watan (homeland) in
favour of a global Muslim community. However, he does believe in the
supremacy of the Muslim umma. He bases his understanding on practical
grounds as he argues that one needs a home base in which to start an edu-
cation programme, raising awareness and above all Islamising society. He
does not see the benefit of wasting limited resources on battles in
Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya and other places where al-Qaida is thought
to operate. The Islamisation of the homeland includes preaching dawa,
which includes among other things the obligation of jihad. However,
given the present circumstances of Muslims mentioned above, in practice
military jihad has to be ‘suspended’ or ‘frozen’ in favour of cultural and
educational struggle. The objective should be to create the virtuous
Muslim society, which would inevitably lead to the establishment of the
authentic Muslim state. Only then can Muslims think about military con-
frontation with a powerful enemy. In the present circumstances, none of
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 187

the conditions for military struggle are met; therefore, attacking the
United States was premature, foolish and detrimental.

Lewis’s point of view

Lewis responds to Abu Yasir’s questions and accusations in a style reflect-
ing his familiarity with both Islamic and Western discourses. He moves
easily from Ibn Taymiyya to Fukuyama, although he admits that practising
Jihadis do not bother reading the latter. Lewis privileges military struggle
and mocks the educational programme of Abu Yasir. For him dawa is not
a lesson delivered in a mosque. Even if it is the right way to raise aware-
ness, this method has failed to end the subservience inflicted on Muslims
by the superpower. According to him dawa is besieged by both the United
States and its local allies, the rulers of Saudi Arabia, who collaborate to
suppress any activity which undermines American hegemony.
Lewis rejects the notion of watan (homeland) as un-Islamic. According
to him, all Muslim countries and states are recent creations resulting from
foreign intervention rather than an Islamic obligation or effort. This
development is now taken for granted and accepted, but it should be
rejected and confronted. Lewis rejects the idea of Islam based in one
country. He also questions the notion of a homeland when it is occupied
by American female soldiers, the ultimate humiliation.
He also rejects the importance of creating the ‘institutions of civil
society’ through awareness, a programme adopted by Abu Yasir’s move-
ment. According to Lewis, civil society does not lead to any substantial
change. He describes it as an escape from responsibility. He challenges
Abu Yasir to give him examples of major historical changes that have
resulted from the emergence of civil society in the Arab or Muslim world.
Obviously Lewis, the supporter of jihad, thinks that military interventions
in the form of uprisings and revolutions led to the emergence of civil
society rather than the other way round.
The real educational programme, in his view, is that which emphasises
the duty of jihad. He criticises Abu Yasir for preaching jihad but suspend-
ing its practice, thus arousing young people’s emotions without offering
an opportunity to ‘practise what is preached’. The result, according to
Lewis, is frustration. He mentions the position of Sheikh Safar al-Hawali
and Salman al-Awdah: both allegedly advised Saudi youth against going
to Afghanistan to perform jihad against the Soviet Union, while at the
same time glorifying resistance to oppression and foreign domination.
On the decision to attack the United States, Lewis argues that Bin
Laden took advice from ‘majlis shura al-Qaida’, the al-Qaida Shura
Council. According to him, this resulted in America losing its hayba
188 Contesting the Saudi State

(authority), a success which is not well understood by the likes of Abu

Yasir. According to Lewis Abu Yasir belongs to an organisation whose
hierarchical infrastructure prevents him from appreciating this kind of
achievement. Lewis describes the Sahwi movement as bureaucratic, rigid
and hierarchical, freezing abilities as it recruits its followers on the basis of
loyalty and obedience. In contrast, al-Qaida does not isolate itself from
society – rather, it ‘melts in society’, using it for support and cover. Lewis
concludes that the Sahwi movement can easily be eliminated by govern-
ments because it has a transparent organisational infrastructure, whereas
al-Qaida is a real transnational movement, difficult to defeat simply
because it is a loose association.
In addition, al-Qaida, according to Lewis, rejects hierarchical models
of organisation. It acts whereas other Islamists react, resorting to the
effective surprise factor. It uses the enemies’ material, their weapons and
ammunition, to hit a ‘clear’ target. Moreover, it avoids entering into
polemics with other Islamist groups. Finally, it consists of a group of
fidaiyyin, similar to those described by Ibn Taymiyya in his letter to the
king of Cyprus as the ones who ‘kill kings in their beds’.
On the legitimacy of targeting civilians in the USA, Lewis does not dis-
tinguish between Americans and their government. He argues that in a
democracy, the government represents the will of the people. Therefore,
he concludes that American civilians brought their government to power.
By hitting Americans, Lewis expects America to become ‘confused’, lose
perspective and change its policy. He demands that the USA stops
supporting Israel, withdraws its troops from Saudi Arabia and abandon
the Arab taghuts (despots) such as the Saudi leaders to the will of their
own people.
Lewis comments on the limited knowledge of official Saudi ulama who
mistakenly thought that they were targeted by American media when crit-
icism of the Wahhabi movement followed the 11 September attacks. He
concludes that the world does not care about such official ulama.
According to Lewis, only those who defy America become famous. He
gives the example of Jihadi religious scholars such as Nasir al-Fahad and
Humud al-Oqla whose fatwas in support of jihad against the USA are now
famous and reported in the international media. Lewis praises those
ulama for using modern communication technology (the internet) to
communicate their messages, but he also sends a plea. He asks them to
communicate their ideas to al-shabab (the young) in simple and accessi-
ble language. He laments that Saudi official religious scholars think that
they live in the Meccan age, referring to the time when the Prophet
Muhammad could not launch jihad from Mecca when he was under the
rule of the blasphemous. In the Meccan age, there was no jihad.
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 189

From Buraydah to Manhattan is but one forum in which these two Saudi
Salafis engage in a fierce debate about politics and religion. They both
agree on a vision – that is, changing their country through action. Abu
Yasir feels it necessary to adopt a peaceful preaching campaign to
‘Islamise’ society, which would eventually lead to Islamising government.
According to many Islamists, an open battle with the Saudi government
may have detrimental consequences. The fear of direct American inter-
vention in Saudi Arabia to protect the oil fields necessitates a truce.
Lewis, on the other hand, considers the Saudi government ‘the enemy
within’, and totally under the thumb of the United States.
Lewis and Abu Yasir are products of the Islamist movement of the
1980s and 1990s. They draw on the same religious sources. However, the
events of 11 September seem to have started a fierce battle among Saudi
Salafis. This battle is fought both openly and clandestinely, in internet
discussion and bulletin boards. The Sahwi camp, which has suspended
the jihad, now has access to official media channels after almost a decade
of censorship and imprisonment. Today outspoken figures in this move-
ment are given space in official, Saudi-controlled print and satellite
media. The government uses them, in addition to official ulama, to dis-
credit the Jihadis, who have gone underground.

Lewis and violence in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Salafi debate became extremely heated in 2003, which saw two
major suicide bombings in Riyadh in May and November, targeting
major residential compounds occupied by Westerners and other resi-
dents. These attacks, followed by one on a government security building
in April 2004 and the killing of five Western workers in Yanbo and more
than twenty people in Khobar in June, generated heated discussion on the
internet, in which Lewis participated. The main focus of the debate was
on whether such acts of violence constitute true and legitimate jihad.
Almost all Sahwi Islamists inside Saudi Arabia publicly condemned the
violence and described it as an ‘act of terror’, carried out by what is often
described as al-firqa al-dhalla (those who have gone astray) and as
Kharijites; both terms invoke strong religious connotations leading to
rejection and condemnation of the attackers. Among those who con-
demned the attacks was a small group of Sahwi activists (including
Sheikhs Safar al-Hawali, Sulayman al-Duwaish and Muhsin al-Awajy),
who offered to mediate between the government and activists known to
have previously supported jihad, hoping that their young followers who
had gone underground would give themselves up. They called upon the
youth ‘who have gone astray’ to repent and come forward to face justice.
190 Contesting the Saudi State

The government, however, openly rejected the proposal and continued to

pursue a policy based on military confrontation with the Jihadis and their
cells. It is difficult to confirm that any talks with the Jihadis did actually
take place. Throughout 2003–4, the Saudi government publicly reiter-
ated its position, and refused to negotiate with the Jihadis. However, in
reality, it encouraged and welcomed the Sahwi mediation initiative. In the
words of one Sahwi, the state cannot admit that it uses Sahwis to mediate
with Jihadis, as this would destroy its credibility.14
The government used the violence of 2003–4 to project an image of the
Jihadis as a group that targets society and innocent people, highlighting
the fact that Muslims and Arabs were killed, especially in the November
attack. When suicide bombers struck the Riyadh security building on 21
April 2004, only Saudis died. In the media battle between the govern-
ment and the Jihadis, the government was able to discredit the Jihadis and
expose ‘their lie that they only target Westerners’. However, in April
2004, when violence struck in the Red Sea city of Yanbo and claimed the
lives of five Western workers, Jihadis reasserted their early strategy of tar-
geting Western interests and workers in Saudi Arabia. The government,
under pressure because of the violence, apparently tried to appease the
Jihadis by offering an amnesty period of one month (June–July 2004). A
handful of suspects on the wanted list gave themselves up to Saudi
embassies in Tehran and Damascus, while one or two local suspects
responded to the king’s offer. A key Jihadi figure, Sheikh Faris al-Shuwayl
al-Zahrani, was captured on the Saudi–Yemeni border in July 2004 after
refusing to give himself up to what he called the ‘taghut government’.
The obvious space for challenging both government discourse on
Jihadis and that of the official and Sahwi ulama was internet discussion
boards. As expected, Lewis was ready to improvise, and was an active par-
ticipant in this debate. In an electronic interview with Sawt al-Jihad, he
explains and defends the Jihadi strategy in Saudi Arabia.15 The inter-
viewer asks Lewis whether he thinks that targeting foreigners’ residential
compounds might decrease the appeal of the Jihadis and turn society
against them. Lewis responds that the 2003 bombings in Riyadh may
dent their popularity for a short time, but that the attacks should ‘be
placed in the larger context of resisting Western and American domina-
tion’. He argues that Jihadis may have to resort to such strategies although
it is psychologically costly and may lead to momentary decline in their
popularity. According to Lewis, in the long term, Jihadis need to
consider two aspects related to these attacks: first, how to prevent ‘hyp-
ocrites’ from achieving a media victory following violence; and second,
how to stop those hiding behind a ‘misguided’ religious discourse from
condemning Jihadis.
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 191

The interviewer asks Lewis to explain why Jihadis have not so far tar-
geted members of the Saudi royal family – which, according to the inter-
viewer, may avoid the problem of other innocent people being killed in
future blasts. Although Lewis admits that he does not have a clear answer,
he thinks that such a strategy would inevitably speed up the collapse of
the Saudi regime. He argues that this is no doubt a military decision that
is constantly discussed in Jihadi circles. However, he offers his explana-
tion why such acts have not yet taken place. Jihadis, according to Lewis,
may not yet be ready for the total collapse of the Saudi regime, which is a
close ally of the United States. The continuity of the regime prevents the
USA from attacking the country. The regime in its present configuration
acts like a shield, protecting Jihadis from direct exposure to the United
States which, according to Jihadis, would no doubt intervene in Saudi
Arabia to protect the oil fields. Lewis thinks that limited violent attacks in
Saudi Arabia would increase the pressure on the ruling family, without
leading to the complete disintegration of the regime.
The violence that erupted in Saudi Arabia throughout 2003 and 2004
seems to have escalated with the occupation of Iraq and the increase in
Iraqi resistance to it. While all Saudi Salafis endorsed the Iraqi resistance
as legitimate defence against occupation, violence against Westerners and
Western interests inside Saudi Arabia was a different and more compli-
cated matter. As expected, official media, together with establishment
ulama and Sahwis, openly condemned acts of violence inside Saudi
Arabia. Lewis, however, offered a different interpretation, as indicated in
his commentaries on the violent events of 2003–4.

Lewis and his enemies: the jihad obligation explained

In addition to the internal battle that is raging electronically among Saudi
Salafis, Lewis engages in a different kind of encounter, which is primarily
directed towards the West. In an article entitled ‘Yes Blair: It Is a Historic
War’, Lewis summarises his views on the war in Iraq:
Yes, you [Prime Minister Tony Blair] are right. It is a historic war and not a
peripheral battle as your unwise American allies think. Look at the new weapons
used by the mujahidin in Iraq. The weapon of kidnapping your men and women in
Iraq. What happens in Falluja is a serious matter. It shows that Muslims are taking
the initiative for the first time in modern history. Unlike what happened in
Afghanistan in the 1980s, when jihad was manipulated for international political
reasons, the situation in Falluja is a product of Jihadis taking the initiative and car-
rying out their own plan.16
Lewis compares two jihad experiences. The first took place in Afghanistan
throughout the 1980s and resulted in the liberation of Afghanistan, the
192 Contesting the Saudi State

humiliation of the Soviet Union and eventually its collapse. Unlike other
Jihadis, Lewis is aware of the international context in which this jihad took
place; for example, he refers to the ‘manipulation of the United States and
other Muslim governments’ of this jihad. His interpretation of the Afghan
jihad invokes notions of balance of power and the Cold War conflict. He
alludes to the fact that Jihadis were ‘used’ in this conflict to carry out the
strategies of a superpower. The second case is that of Falluja. For Lewis,
the Iraqi resistance in Falluja is an example of an independent ‘Muslim
initiative’, determining without ‘outside patronage’ the place and time of
the battle with the Unites States.
Despite destruction and death in Falluja throughout April 2004, Lewis
considers the jihad option to be a success. He sees the Iraqi resistance as a
coordinated activity which has spread thaqafat al-jihad (a culture of jihad),
‘implanting the psychology and prestige of resistance and the pride of
killing the blasphemous’. Lewis refers to the unexpected resistance of
Iraqis in what was commonly referred to as the ‘Glorious Sunni Triangle’.
His interpretation of this development in Iraq centres on the fact that the
resistance was a product of popular consciousness without any effort from
Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. In his opinion, by invading Iraq, the United States
facilitated the spread of the jihad culture without any effort by al-Qaida.
Lewis returns to Tony Blair’s description of the war in Iraq as a ‘historic
battle that nobody in the West can afford to go wrong or fail’. According
to Blair, failure in Iraq means the return of fanatics and terrorists. Lewis
agrees that failure in Iraq has a high price for the West. It involves the ‘loss
of all Western domination in the Muslim world achieved over the last five
In addition to this address to Tony Blair, Lewis claims to have corre-
sponded with Reuven Paz, senior fellow at the Centre for Global
Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) in Hertzylia, Israel.17 It
seems that on one occasion, Paz accused Lewis of having fallen into junun
al-adhama (grandiose madness), especially after 11 September. Lewis
refutes this accusation and explains that Muslims ‘had an ancient grand
history, which was subdued by Western domination. The 11 September
attack reasserted their supremacy.’ Lewis argues that the strategy of al-
Qaida is incomprehensible to Westerners or to Paz himself, whose politi-
cal thought is derived from a combination of Judaeo-Christian roots and
secular capitalist principles. In contrast, al-Qaida’s programme is above
all ‘mashru Islami dini’ (an Islamic project devoid of secular and capitalist
underpinnings), according to Lewis. This ‘Islamic project’ aims to under-
mine the existing international world order.18
The invasion of Iraq presents itself as the background to Lewis’s com-
mentary on the international world order. He argues that although he
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 193

hated Saddam and his regime, he felt a kind of sadness over how his
regime collapsed as a result of American intervention. He would have
preferred al-Qaida men to have brought down Saddam. However, he
recovered from this sadness as soon as the Iraqi resistance started inflict-
ing heavy losses on American troops. According to Lewis, even before
America expressed joy over the removal of Saddam, the resistance proved
that US plans for the region would be thwarted.
Lewis introduces four prisms through which he interprets the occupa-
tion of Iraq, seen as yet another step towards thwarting American hege-
mony in the Arab world while increasing the credibility of the jihad
option. First, Saddam’s fall in this manner and speed facilitated the com-
plete destruction of the secular Bathist ideology, thus removing one of
the obstacles to the materialisation of the Islamist agenda. Second, the
occupation privileged the culture of jihad as the option most suitable for
dealing with the crisis of the Muslim world. Third, the occupation led to a
trap in which the USA is the loser. The USA, according to Lewis, will lose
whether it stays in Iraq or leaves. Fourth, the attack on New York was the
key event that hastened the confrontation between the international
world order, represented by the United States, and the Muslim world.

Lewis comes home to bilad al-haramayn

We have established that Lewis is an umami Islamist whose vision encom-
passes an Islamic world order which opposes and defies the current inter-
national world order, under US hegemony. His jihad is very much
dependent on the notion of an Islamic umma, encompassing different
races, nationalities and cultural groups. The unity of this umma is derived
from faith rather than race. However, Lewis turns his attention to his
homeland, the most sacred territory and the core of the Muslim world, the
Land of the Two Holy Mosques, bilad al-haramayn. His homeland is
central in the establishment of the Islamic world order, but unfortunately,
according to Lewis, it has become, under the current Saudi leadership, a
vehicle for Western hegemony. Lewis seems to blur the boundaries
between the so-called national and transnational Islamists, a dichotomy
that has become fashionable in several academic studies of the Islamist
movement after 11 September. The first are often seen as moderate
Islamists whereas the latter are considered representatives of the radical
trend, held responsible for globalising jihad out of desperation and defeat.19
When Lewis ‘returns’ to bilad al-haramayn, he is transformed into a
nationalist who invokes notions of sacred territory, historical responsibil-
ity and the glorious past. For Lewis bilad al-haramayn is not only Mecca
and Madina, which are theoretically closed to non-Muslims, but the
194 Contesting the Saudi State

whole Arabian Peninsula. As such, the land of Islam needs to be freed

from acts of defilement, manifested in the actual physical presence of
non-Muslims. This foreign presence encompasses not only US soldiers
and military bases, but also non-Muslim workers, especially Western
expatriates. According to Lewis, foreigners, obviously regarded as
profane, violate the purity of this geographical entity. Here the bound-
aries of bilad al-haramayn are seen as having become porous, allowing in
the process a greater defilement and molestation to take place not only on
the periphery but also in the core of this sacred territory.
For Lewis bilad al-haramayn’s sacredness stems from the presence of
the holy shrines in Mecca and Madina as well as the fact that the last
Prophet, Muhammad, appeared in this land with a sacred mission, the
message of Islam. Another element in this sacredness stems from the role
played by the people of this land in spreading dawa (the call), starting
with the early companions of the prophet, the caliphs and later genera-
tions of bilad al-haramayn. In addressing the people of this land, Lewis
uses the term ahfad al sahaba, the grandsons of the early companions of
the Prophet.
He calls upon the ‘grandsons of the companions of the Prophet to expel
the infidels from jazirat al-arab’, the Arabian Peninsula following the
prophetic tradition. Jazirat al-arab is another central term for Lewis. It
invokes ‘Arab’ possession of a territory, which the descriptive nomencla-
ture al-jazira al-arabiyya fails to capture. Furthermore, jazirat al-arab
conveys a different meaning from that implied by bilad al-haramyn. The
first invokes the centrality of the Arab dimension of the jihad option and
the historical responsibility of the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula to
take the lead in the struggle. When Lewis invokes jazirat al-arab, there is
no doubt that he is an Arab nationalist, thus exposing the tension between
the universal Muslim community, the umma, and the particular, his own
homeland. He resolves this tension by ascribing a central role to his own
native land, fusing the local – his homeland – in the global project, the
envisaged Islamic world order.
According to Lewis, the hegemony of the international world order is
dependent on the survival of the Saudi regime in its present form, pejora-
tively referred to as al-nidham al-Sululi. This regime, he says, needs to be
dismantled. Three conditions will contribute to its downfall.20 First, the
Islamic reform movement was the only voice that exposed the reality of the
regime, its corruption and support of Western domination in the region.
As such, this movement plays an important role in dismantling the web of
lies upon which the regime bases its legitimacy. Second, internal disputes
within the royal family will eventually lead to the regime’s downfall. Third,
regular violence like that in Riyadh in 2003 and 2004, demonstrates that
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 195

Bin Laden is preparing the ground for the collapse of the Saudi regime or
a series of assassinations of key figures among the royal family.
The above factors would, according to Lewis, dismantle a regime that
has ‘served the West for the last seventy years’, paving the way for their
projects and supporting their interests. Once this essential obstacle is
removed, the Islamic world order would be established. However, Lewis
warns that a period of chaos may ensue in the short term. Chaos often
accompanies drastic changes such as the one expected to shake the nation
(‘tahuz al-umma’) after decades of submission, hypocrisy and evil. He
also does not rule out the inevitability of fitna (dissent), which normally
accompanies serious political and social changes. Lewis has an apocalyp-
tic vision of the liminal period, which he describes as being chaotic and
lawless. He forecasts a situation in which ‘people will die of thirst, hunger
and at the hands of thugs and criminals’. This is the high price that must
be paid for the establishment of the Islamic world order, starting with the
central core, bilad al-haramayn/jazirat al-arab.

The ultimate defilement of bilad al-haramayn: ‘when a

hypocrite becomes ruler’
When the hypocrites come to thee, they say, ‘We bear witness that thou
art indeed the messenger of Allah.’ Yea, Allah Knoweth that thou art
indeed His Messenger, And Allah beareth witness that the Hypocrites are
indeed liars.
They have made their oaths a screen [for their misdeeds]: thus they obstruct
[men] from the Path of Allah: Truly evil are their deeds.
Quran, Sura 63, al-Munafiqun, verses 1 and 2
At the time of the Prophet, the boundaries between Muslims and
non-Muslims in Madinan society were well defined. The community con-
sisted of two categories, those who declared their Islam and were part of the
Muslim umma, and those who remained outside it by virtue of professing
other faiths. The first category consisted of those who were true believers.
They declared their faith, performed Islam’s rituals and demonstrated
their allegiance to the Prophet and the community. But the category
‘Muslims’ included an ambiguous and dangerous subgroup, the hyp-
ocrites, al-munafiqun, who declared their faith and performed the rituals
but had no allegiance to the Prophet and the community. In fact, they
secretly plotted to destroy Islam and defeat Muslims. According to the
Muslim tradition, al-munafiqun are the enemy within. They have distinct
characteristics, which may or may not be easily detectable by the rest of the
community of Muslims. In general the hypocrites are people who openly
declare their Islam, believe in its five pillars, and are incorporated in the
196 Contesting the Saudi State

boundaries of the Muslim community. The earliest ones approached the

Prophet, announcing their belief and acceptance of his mission. However,
they used their ‘insider’ status, their closeness to the Prophet and their
open display of piety to conceal their true selves and harm Muslims. As an
enemy within, they are a ‘fifth column’, and serve the interests of the
enemies of Islam.
The Prophet through divine revelation warned his community of the
danger such groups pose for Muslims and Islam, hence Sura al-Munafiqun
was revealed to draw attention to the destructive role of the hypocrites, who
will always be a feature of Muslim society but who need to be exposed and
expelled. During the Prophet’s time, the secret of the hypocrites was
exposed but God warned of their presence in the future and the responsi-
bility of all Muslims to draw attention to their destructive influence.
One famous hypocrite in the pre-Islamic tradition was Abu Righal,
who guided the army of the Abyssinian king Abraha towards the holy
shrine in Mecca, the Kaaba, with the objective of destroying it. In the
Islamic tradition, the Abyssinians were the rulers of Yemen and in the
year of the Prophet’s birth, about 570CE, we find them at the gates of
Mecca threatening its precious Kaaba with destruction.21 In the early
Meccan Sura al-Fil (the elephant), the Abyssinian Christians under the
viceroy Abraha Ashram led a big expedition against pagan Meccans,
riding on elephants. The Meccans offered no defence, but a shower of
stones, thrown by flocks of birds, destroyed Abraha’s army.
In Hina yusbih al-munafiq hakim (When the Hypocrite becomes the
Ruler), Lewis returns to the theme of hypocrites in the Islamic tradition
as he recounts the famous story of another hypocrite, Abdullah ibn Sulul.
Lewis argues that the most dangerous threat to early Muslims was not the
known enemy – for example, Abu Jahl, whose kufr (blasphemy) was
known and obvious. In fact, the real danger came from Abdullah ibn
Sulul’s ‘hidden cancer that destroys the community from within’. Ibn
Sulul, a Jew from Madina, declared his allegiance to the Prophet and
composed poetry in his honour, but in the battle of Uhud (625), he with-
drew one-third of the Muslim army, estimated at 300 men, which resulted
in perplexity, confusion and the eventual defeat of the Muslims in this
important military encounter with the pagan Meccans.22 In this battle,
the Meccans under the command of Abu Sufyan avenged their previous
defeat in the battle of Badr. The Prophet was wounded, but Islam was not
defeated, according to Lewis.23
Lewis asks, ‘What would have happened to Muslim society had
Abdullah ibn Sulul, the hypocrite, become ruler?’ The Muslim tradition
asserts that the presence of hypocrites within the Muslim community is
not an unusual phenomenon. Nevertheless, when a munafiq becomes
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 197

ruler of the Muslim community, the consequences are detrimental. Lewis

asks his audience to imagine a hypocrite ruling over not only Muslim
lands but the holiest of all – bilad al-haramayn. In this exercise of imagina-
tion, he outlines the intrigues of a recent ‘Abdullah ibn Sulul’, a reference
to Ibn Saud, the founder of the kingdom, and later his sons. He lists some
of the hypocritical acts of past and present. While publicly declaring faith
and belonging to the Muslim community, the contemporary hypocrite
uses Muslims to establish his dynastic realm. Behind their backs, he
enters into alliances with the British government (a reference to early
Saudi relations with colonial Britain in the Gulf). He then respects British
interests and restrains Muslims from performing jihad. After consolidat-
ing his realm, Ibn Sulul/Ibn Saud turns his attention to his supporters,
and in one battle he eliminates them after establishing his rule. Further-
more, while continuing to profess faith, Ibn Sulul/Ibn Saud introduces a
Western style-banking system, charging the forbidden interest. He also
conspires against all Islamist movements and causes. Lewis mentions
Saudi endorsement of a number of governments – for example, Algeria,
Sudan, Yemen, Egypt and Chechnya – in support of suppressing the
prospect of Islamists coming to power. However, Ibn Sulul/Ibn Saud does
not dare to publicly declare his kufr, in spite of all his wealth and capabili-
ties. According to Lewis, the hypocrite remains weak.
In this exposure of hypocrisy, Lewis weaves together past and present.
His argument is anchored in Islamic discourse and tradition. The text is
full of references to the Prophet’s biography and the golden age of the
companions of the Prophet. Although the past is the anchor, it seems that
the present is the starting-point for invoking a distant and ancient tradi-
tion. The word Salafi is well anchored in the past as it explicitly conjures
up a return to the past and an orientation towards earlier tradition.
However, it is clear from Lewis’s exposition that the present is of great
concern. The return to the past is only one way of rectifying present
calamities, disorder and deviation from the right path.

The sultan’s ulama: ‘cursed by God and

cursed by cursers’
The hypocrite does not act alone in Lewis’s literary productions. He turns
his attention to ulama al-sultan, the team of official religious scholars
headed by the Saudi grand mufti who invokes sacred texts to sanction the
words and deeds of the hypocrite ruler.24 The ulama use their ‘sacred
religious knowledge’ in approving the ruler’s treacherous acts. For Lewis,
the real ulama should play a role in exposing hypocrisy rather than
lending it an air of legitimacy. In his condemnation of such ulama, there
198 Contesting the Saudi State

is no room for pragmatism, expediency or realism. He does not accept

any argument which may justify or explain the historical support of the
official ulama for the hypocrite ruler but rather demonstrates how they
suspend certain religious interpretations and judgements. One neglected
responsibility is the duty to ‘expel the mushrik, polytheist from the
Arabian Peninsula’, in the Prophetic tradition. Lewis invokes a compari-
son with the Shii ulama, who, according to his understanding, strongly
believe in the infallible imams, the descendants of the Prophet to whom
they attach great deference and obedience. He argues that ulama al-
sultan are worse than the Shii ulama because they believe in the infallible
hypocrite ruler. In his reference to the Shii tradition, Lewis is ‘ashamed
of how far the Sunni ulama have gone in praising the rulers, invoking the
concept of tazkiyyat al-hakim [praising the ruler]’. In his opinion, the
ulama have distorted the reformist call of Sheikh Muhammad ibn abd al-
Wahhab in the service of a ruler who happens to be a hypocrite. They
have in fact ‘domesticated’ and ‘hijacked’ the reform movement to suit
the political whims of the ruler, in the name of Ibn Abd al-Wahab.
Furthermore, Lewis condemns the ulama for their various fatwas justi-
fying the prosecution of Jihadis who ‘kill the infidels in the Arabian
Peninsula’ and questions the interpretation that such infidels represent
ahl al-dhimma, whose blood should not be spilled by Muslims. He clari-
fies his point of view by adding that US military presence in Arabia is an
occupation and as such jihad is the only means to respond to such viola-
tion of the sanctity of bilad al-haramayn. The central question for Lewis is
how the ulama can issue fatwas justifying the killing of ahl al-islam and
forbidding the killing of ahl al-sulban (people of the cross).
Lewis issues a call to the youth of the nation to abandon those ulama
who practise kitman (concealing what is right as expressed in sacred texts)
while revealing complete deference towards the hypocrite ruler. He urges
them to point their fingers and say, ‘Those are cursed by God and cursed
by cursers’, thus invoking a famous Quranic Sura that condemns those
who practise kitman.
After saturating his text with religious references and Quranic verses,
Lewis ventures into European history and warns against the ‘historical
alliance between European kings and the pope’, which in his opinion had
detrimental consequences for faith. He cites the French Revolution, which
he interprets as a ‘revolt against religion in all its manifestations, leading to
rejecting religion all together and the consolidation of secular society in the
West’. This interpretation of the French Revolution does overlook some
substantial causal factors; however, it remains a valid reading of this histor-
ical event whose outcome is utterly condemned by Lewis. He is confident
that ‘the religion of God is protected, but the right path needs men to
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 199

render it visible’. At the end Lewis thanks God that neither papal authority
(a reference to official Saudi ulama) nor despotic kings are capable of con-
cealing the right path of Allah. Lewis’s confidence is derived from his faith
in God, and in the courage of Bin Laden and Jihadis.
Lewis addresses the Saudi grand mufti, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Shaykh, a
grandson of the reformer Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and shames
him by reminding him of his descent from the ‘great reformer’. According
to Lewis, had the latter been alive, he would have decreed a flogging for
the mufti as a punishment for supporting Al-Saud’s policies. Lewis
declares the Mufti fasiq (debauched), a ruling which he thinks Ibn Abd al-
Wahhab would have used to describe his grandson. He reminds the mufti
of the words of Ibn abd al-Wahhab, who described the taghut as the ones
who have gone back on religion (murtadd) because they permit what God
forbids and forbid what God permits. Lewis reminds his audience that
Islam will not flourish until Muslims announce dissociation from those
people and their blasphemy.
The role of the ulama in sanctioning American hegemony in Saudi
Arabia is yet another proof of the co-optation of religious scholars,
according to Lewis. Here he returns to the Gulf War of 1990–1 when
American soldiers, including women, ‘defiled the land of the Two Holy
Mosques’. The ulama ‘sanctioned this intrusion, thus replacing a kafir,
the blasphemous Saddam Hussein, with another kafir, the Americans’.
Given Saudi Arabia’s sanctity and wealth, Lewis laments how Islam
degenerated at the hands of the rulers. In particular he resents how ahl
al-sunna [Sunni Muslims] have been reduced to insignificance in the
world as a result of the ulama’s role’. He argues that today Saudi ulama
are worse than those of the Shiis and the Kharijites because they allow
the killing of Jihadis and forbid the killing of Jews and Christians.
According to Lewis, the Kharijites ‘left the Muslim community claiming
to go back to judgement by the holy book whereas the ulama today order
people to obey those who do not rule according to the book’. He ques-
tions whether the ‘occupying American army’ in Saudi Arabia can ever be
granted the status of ahl al-dhimma (people of the book). Finally, he
encourages the Muslim youth to protect those religious scholars who
refuse to be drawn into the circle of apologetic ulama, giving the example
of Shaykh Humud al-Oqla and his followers.

Preparing for chaos: an Imam elected by

an alternative council
In interpreting Bin Laden’s plan for Saudi Arabia, Lewis anticipates a
period of chaos, following the gradual or sudden collapse of the house of
200 Contesting the Saudi State

Saud. In order to protect the community from a state of disintegration, he

urges the faithful ulama, who are concerned about the future of Islam
and faith, to come together and form a clandestine council consisting of
the real ulama and reformers (duat al-islah) in a secure location. This
council is expected to occupy the vacuum resulting from the expected
regime collapse.25
Lewis, the interpreter of Bin Laden’s vision, expects the United States
to occupy Saudi Arabia the moment it feels that its oil interests are threat-
ened as a result of the collapse of the house of Saud. The USA will lose its
local supporters, upon whom it has been relying for the perpetuation of
its hegemony. At this juncture, Lewis argues that it will have no choice but
to go for a direct occupation of the Arabian Peninsula. He also introduces
another possibility that would prompt the USA to deploy its troops in
Saudi Arabia: a second ‘spectacular attack along the lines of 11
September’. Lewis expects the USA to respond by punishing the radicals
inside Saudi Arabia. The next attack, according to Lewis, will be ‘cre-
ative’ and unexpected in the manner in which it will be carried out. As the
USA prepares for the direct occupation of Saudi Arabia, Jihadis will have
had plenty of time to organise themselves, having benefited from the US
occupation of Iraq, which gave them the opportunity to operate in that
territory. In those circumstances, the Jihadis will be in charge of the mili-
tary situation and resistance while a new council of ulama elects the
rightful Imam, the leader of the Muslim community.

Lewis: between admiration and detraction

There is no doubt that Lewis Atiyat Allah has established himself as one
of the internet’s most popular Salafi writers, whose style, arguments and
interpretations are meant to address a wider audience. He presents
himself as a Muslim intellectual, conversant with Islam and its tradition
but also aware of politics and international relations. At one level, Lewis is
a Salafi who draws on the classical sources ranging from those of Ibn
Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyya to Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. At another level, he
addresses history, Western intellectual heritage, international relations
and the role of Islam in the modern world.
Lewis should not be understood as ‘a detached observer’ or a ‘strategic
analyst’. His discourse is a product of activism and a commitment to
change the conditions of the Muslim umma. He remains an engaged
Islamist intellectual. His Western enemies no doubt describe him as an
apologist for terrorism and as someone who encourages, supports and
endorses armed struggle in a global war without frontiers, specific targets
or objectives and which he and his like have no chance of winning. Such
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 201

opponents would also describe him as a megalomaniac, an unrealistic

dreamer who would like to plunge the world into his nightmare scenarios.
He would also be considered a destroyer of world peace and order, driven
by subliminal hatred towards an enemy that is far superior, more rational
and advanced. In Western classifications of the post-11 September world,
Lewis incites violence and encourages terrorism.
Some Arab and Muslim opponents see him as a misguided person who
‘poisons’ the minds of young men in pursuit of an unrealistic project at a
critical moment. Like his Western opponents, these people see him as an
irrational misfit whose words undermine their security, prosperity and
coexistence with the Western other. Some Muslims may share his emo-
tional response to the state of degradation and humiliation, and come to
lament the golden age of Muslim civilisation. In fact, this shared emo-
tional response is the key to Lewis’s fame, which means that even his
enemies feel the urge to respond to his writings. For many opponents, he
remains an outcast, whose enthusiasm for the cause of Muslims is not
fully appreciated. In fact, his words inflame the minds and hearts of young
Muslims, a situation regarded by his opponents as counterproductive,
and even destructive.
Given the accessibility of Lewis’s discourse, it is not surprising that his
participation in internet discussion boards is eagerly awaited by a wide
audience, some of whom do not hesitate to reply immediately, either in
praise or condemnation. It is worth mentioning that not all those who read
Lewis’s articles and respond to them accept his line of thought. In addition
to lengthy formal responses, represented in the dialogue with Abu Yasir
mentioned earlier in this chapter, his electronic contributions generate a
heated debate between those who support him and eagerly await his arti-
cles, and those who strongly condemn them. Monitoring these responses
indicates that not all his respondents are particularly well informed in the
two fields that Lewis masters, the Islamic and Western traditions.
Supporters praise Lewis and invoke Quranic verses glorifying and cele-
brating his ‘sacrifices’, ‘commitment’ and ‘courage’. Others praise him
for his accessible language, the clarity of his thoughts and his convincing
arguments. They also call upon God to protect him from the many
enemies his boldness is bound to generate. For them, Lewis is a teacher
and preacher.
Those who reject Lewis describe him in very disparaging terms. Some
call him ‘ajuz London’, the old man of London, implying that he is one of
the Saudi opposition figures who have taken refuge in London since the
early 1990s. Others pejoratively call him ‘the desktop Jihadi’, a reference
to his alleged lack of vitality and his incapacity to influence the course of
events inside Saudi Arabia, or even beyond this one country. Some of
202 Contesting the Saudi State

Lewis’s attackers were his early ‘comrades’, other Sahwi Islamists who
according to him ‘failed to take their awakening to its logical conclusion
as they suspended the jihad duty’. These people accuse Lewis of betraying
the essence of the call, encouraging dissent and celebrating future law-
lessness, leading the youth of the nation astray. Some trivial accusations
name him as a foreign intelligence or Zionist agent, whose articles are
meant to ‘divide Muslims’ and tarnish the image of Islam in the world.
More sophisticate deconstructions of Lewis’s articles invoke the futility
of the duty of jihad in the present circumstances, a line of argument
similar to that invoked by Abu Yasir earlier in this chapter. One critic
anchors his objections in strategic grounds, arguing that the loss of
Afghanistan as a base was the consequence of an undisciplined struggle,
targeting a powerful enemy without being able to defend one’s own terri-
tory from inevitable retaliation. Such responses demonstrate that Lewis is
wrong only in some strategic thinking, while his overall interpretation of
the duty of jihad is correct.
In one electronic contribution, Lewis cites an exchange he had with
Reuven Paz, senior fellow at the Centre for Global Research in
International Affairs, entitled ‘This is How al-Qaida Spoke: A Letter to
Reuven Paz’. Lewis argues that Paz and the Sururi Sahwis share a
common understanding of al-Qaida. They both condemn it as lacking a
political programme. On one occasion Lewis cites Paz as having said:

I wonder whether al-Qaida agrees with your analysis. I had in mind the image of
Osama as he sits in one of his caves reading your correspondence with this Israeli
Jewish scholar [Paz] . . . My brother in humanity, Lewis, I do respect your line of
analysis and your will to continue the struggle but in your writings you confuse
reality with imagination. 26

A survey of the responses to Lewis shows that both his admirers and his
detractors feel compelled to address his message, which cannot be pub-
lished openly in Saudi Arabia since the mid-1990s, or globally since 11
September. He has therefore taken refuge in the internet, and his ideas
will most probably travel long distances in cyberspace, thanks to elec-
tronic waves.

Lewis in his own eyes

Lewis reflects on his own contribution to the cause of jihad. In his
opinion, his main achievement is the invention of a mocking nickname for
the Saudi royal family. The name al-Sulul (a reference to the hypocrite
Abdullah ibn Sulul) is a powerful symbol in Muslims’ religious and
historical imagination. Like all such symbols, which condense meaning,
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 203

the name al-Sulul powerfully evokes the ‘hypocrisy’ of the ruling family.
Today the name is used by both Jihadis and a wide range of Islamist oppo-
nents of the Saudi regime.27 It appears in Jihadi media clips and is
repeated in international satellite television news channels when they cite
Jihadi sources. According to Lewis, the name’s importance will become
even more revealing after the anticipated collapse of the Saudi regime,
and will be associated with the royal family in a manner reminiscent of
how the nicknames al-Kathab (the liar) and Abu Jahl (the father of igno-
rance) became an integral part of the identity of Musaylima and Amr ibn
Hisham28 respectively.
Second, Lewis admits to practising a kind of intellectual terrorism
against Sahwi sheikhs by exposing their standpoint in his articles, espe-
cially in the period between 11 September and the beginning of violence
in Saudi Arabia in 2003. According to Lewis, his articles influenced many
young people who began to doubt the authenticity of the Sahwi sheikhs
and their commitment to Muslim causes. However, he admits that after
the outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia in 2003, the Jihadis were under
military and intellectual siege from the Sururi Sahwi Islamists. The gov-
ernment encouraged the latter to adopt an anti-Jihadi position, and even
publicly defend the regime. The Sahwis had access to Saudi, Arab and
international media as long as they were prepared to publicly condemn
violence and attack the Jihadis.
Third, Lewis considers his articles a success in so far as they create a
perception of the Jihadis that counters the negative images propagated by
their enemies. According to him, he plays a role similar to that of
Abdullah Azzam in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. Lewis
thinks that the modern language he uses to promote jihad is suitable for
the current struggle against Americans.
Fourth, Lewis argues that his contributions give the jihad an intellec-
tual and philosophical meaning which resonates not only in Saudi Arabia
but worldwide. His rhetoric differs from that of the ulama of jihad, whose
style is judicial and may not be easily accessible to those with limited
Islamic education. According to Lewis, his articles depict jihad as a social
and civilisational duty, whereas most Jihadi literature talks of it as simply
harb ala al-kuffar, a battle against the infidels with the objective of
expelling them from the Arabian Peninsula. In his own self-assessment,
Lewis moves Jihadi discourse to a different level of sophistication.

Evaluating Lewis: popularity against anonymity

Moving away from Lewis’s subjective evaluation of his own achievement
to an analytical assessment of his impact involves identifying three factors
204 Contesting the Saudi State

behind his popularity: one related to Lewis as a writer; a second concern-

ing conditions in Saudi Arabia in the post-11 September period; and a
third dealing with the relationship between the USA and the Arab world,
including Saudi Arabia. All three dimensions give a virtual and unknown
writer like Lewis unusual fame, and followers among Saudi internet users
as well as all Arabic speakers who surf the internet in search of answers to
urgent questions that dominate their imagination at a critical historical
and political moment. Lewis moved from being an unknown personality
to a major player in a virtual forum where his articles force readers to
respond, regardless of whether they agree with the message. His past and
his various personal crises – for example, his conversion to liberalism and
later return to Islamism – do not make him a straightforward popular
Islamist writer, automatically predisposed to play the role he envisaged
for himself as he entered middle age. His early personal tensions and con-
tradictions may not have allowed him a direct entry into the world of
Jihadis. One can argue that his personal narrative may not attest to a long
association with this trend. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that
his early Islamist upbringing and his later liberalism were essential pre-
conditions for such a dramatic entry into the underground world of the
Jihadis. One can also question whether this is the final destination for
Lewis, or whether he will continue to evolve.
Lewis has become an internet Jihadi icon, despite the fact that he does
not belong to the more established community of ulama, Sahwis or other
formal groups. In fact, one can argue that he became so popular because
he was not a member of the ulama, whose stance after 11 September
changed dramatically to the surprise and shock of some of their followers.
While official Saudi media boast about ex-Jihadis – ulama, activists and
laymen29 – who declare their tawba (repentance) on television screens and
move away from Jihadi and takfiri positions towards a ‘moderate’ Islam,
Lewis attests to an evolution in the opposite direction, towards the Jihadi
camp. Lewis’s repentance – that is, the confirmation of his allegiance to
the Jihadis – does not, however, find its way to public media channels. His
story and articles remain alive in an electronic medium.
Lewis’s pre-eminence relates to four personal attributes, clearly
demonstrated in his writings. He displays courage, self-confidence, hope
and an understanding of the West. He is extremely courageous in his crit-
icism of Sahwis who in the 1990s assumed nearly sacred status among the
youth of Saudi Arabia, including Lewis himself. He dismantles the myth
surrounding these personalities, using their own weapons and drawing on
Salafi thought and proofs. His criticism remains strong and within the
limits of religious argumentation. In several articles, he defies the ‘culture
of secrecy and silence’ predominant in Saudi Arabia as a result of a
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 205

combination of political, religious and social factors. Political oppression

– combined with powerful tribal and familial control mechanisms and
religious interpretations which require total obedience to men in posi-
tions of authority and condemns ‘individual’ opinions believed to be
threatening unity and encouraging dissent – are powerful taboos, which
many prefer to remain intact. Lewis dismantles the culture of secrecy and
silence cherished in Saudi Arabia, albeit under a pseudonym. Lewis’s
second asset is his self-confidence and belief in the strength of the Muslim
community. He does not believe in self-flagellation. His articles reject
defeatism and celebrate future victory. Such a style appeals to men who
are tormented by what they perceive as inhizamiyyat al-umma, the
umma’s defeatist attitude. He also inspires hope and predicts future vic-
tories as inevitable for those who follow the right path. Finally, his early
liberal ideas and his familiarity with Western literature put him in a privi-
leged position regarding ‘understanding the West’. He impresses his
audience when he cites Lenin, Huntington and Fukuyama. Lewis
appoints himself as qadi, judging the West and its achievement, rather
than muqalid (follower), an imitator of Western ways.
In addition to his own attributes, Lewis’s success is very much related
to external factors pertaining to Saudi Arabia and Salafi schisms after 11
September. He is not a detached observer, but is immersed in his local
surroundings. He has lived through several years of intense debate
between various Islamists belonging to competing camps. Some, such as
the Jihadis and the Sururis, are well known, but others remain clandestine
and less exposed to media attention. Lewis’s full understanding of these
debates is reflected in his articles, most of which are responses to current
affairs. His words explode at the right time and place. This connects him
organically to the lives and debates of others around him. The most
important debates for Saudi Islamists in the twenty-first century seem to
be centred on the duty of jihad, the ‘Islamic’ credentials of the Saudi
regime and how to deal with the USA. Lewis addresses these three con-
cerns in his articles, boosting his popularity.
Lewis’s popularity must also be related to the actual and perceived con-
frontation between the USA and the Arab and Muslim world, beginning
with the question of Palestine and ending with the occupation of Iraq in
2003. In this atmosphere, internet users seem to be constantly searching
for anyone who defies the USA, even if this defiance is anonymous.
However, print and satellite media as well as internet discussion boards
are saturated with anti-Americanism; Lewis must offer something that
other writers lack. He speaks from a position of strength against a back-
ground of obvious and undisputed humiliation, weakness and defeat by
American hegemony. American military strength is not only self-evident,
206 Contesting the Saudi State

it is on display in many settings from Afghanistan to Iraq. However, Lewis

is able to expose the ‘weaknesses and bankruptcy’ of the superpower in
ways which are not so obvious to most readers, drawing on his personal
encounters with American society. The image of a naïve American
woman lured by Lewis is a powerful one. He intersperses his text with
humorous anecdotes and stories of situations he himself encountered
while travelling abroad to deconstruct the myth about a hegemonic
America whose liberalism and capitalism are nowadays projected as the
last phase in the history of humanity. He empowers and emboldens
others, despite his virtual and anonymous status as an internet writer.

Searching for meaning: Lewis’s message

Lewis’s articles contain several global and local messages. His global
message has two dimensions. First, jihad (both defensive and offensive,
military and otherwise) is a central duty which cannot be suspended
depending on the historical context in which Muslims find themselves.
Second, its purpose is not simply to ‘liberate’ Muslims from foreign dom-
ination or ‘expel infidels from the Arabian Peninsula’ (both themes domi-
nate popular Jihadi discourse) but to establish Islam as a hegemonic
religion, power and civilisation (mashru haymana hadariyya).
At the local level, Lewis has several points to make. First, he exposes
the Saudi religious establishment, which claims to be faithful to the Salafi
call of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He sends a clear message that
their Salafiyya is corrupted as a result of co-optation by political author-
ity. Second, he exposes the Sahwi Salafi discourse and shows how it has
compromised itself by adopting a quietist position after 11 September.
He rejects ‘hierarchical Islamist organisations’ which require total obedi-
ence from followers and suppress independent thinking. In such move-
ments, obsession with loyalty, security and the safety of members tend to
lead to compromise with those in positions of authority. Lewis is in favour
of a tayar (current or trend), which is diffuse and difficult to suppress. He
calls for a social movement rather than a party like the Islamist organisa-
tions. In this respect he is a populist rather than an elitist political activist.
He gives the example of al-Qaida, which is in his opinion still strong ‘hor-
izontally’ even after receiving a ‘vertical’ blow. It managed to inflict
damage worldwide even after losing its base in Afghanistan.
Subjecting Lewis’s writing to a careful reading exposes and decon-
structs well-established dogma about Jihadis, often using a frame of refer-
ence which invokes notions of criminality, irrationality, ignorance,
fanaticism, hatred and bigotry. Demonising the ‘enemy’ is a well-known
strategy in the process of eliminating him. However, demonisation does
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 207

not result in ‘understanding’, which should not be interpreted as ‘justify-

ing’ or ‘accepting’ the internal logic that underlies the ‘enemy’s’ behav-
iour. Equally Lewis and other Jihadis cannot be understood if we
continue to think in terms of medieval Islamic theology – for example,
referring to such groups as Kharijites or ghulat (religious extremists).
Such theology is constantly used by the Saudi religious establishment and
leadership to denounce the current threat as a religious sin similar to that
of the early rejectionists who disobeyed the caliph Ali bin Abi Talib. While
comparisons are misleading from both a theological and historical point
of view, this discourse enhances state propaganda, which aims to discredit
Jihadis by labelling them Kharijites who promote dissent by disobeying
the ruler. While there are no grounds for comparing the Saudi rulers with
the Muslim caliph Ali, it seems that comparing the Jihadis with the
Kharijites who rebelled against him is equally implausible religiously,
politically and historically.
In official Saudi discourse, activists like Lewis are often accused of
wanting to repeat the Taliban experience in Saudi Arabia. However, he
operates in a world far removed from that of the Taliban and the caves of
the Tora Bora mountains. Lewis is just one example of a generation of
urban, well-educated Muslim men, whose experience of this world is
marred by a deep feeling of humiliation as a result of a perceived injustice
inflicted on the Muslim world by superpowers and a well-grounded com-
mitment to action which it is hoped will reverse this injustice and regain
pride. Lewis is a modern man, and does not aspire to create an archaic,
Taliban-style Muslim state in Saudi Arabia. While embracing Western
science and technology, he is no doubt socially conservative, and rejects
Western values and morality. Part of his project is to restore Muslim
values and authenticity, while mastering the latest scientific discoveries,
including the internet. Like hundreds of Islamists before him, including
famous ones such as Sayiyd Qutb, Lewis has a troubled relationship with
the West in which admiration, rejection and envy freely intermingle.
Furthermore, by virtue of his education, possible professional training
and social outlook, he does not belong to the wretched of this earth. Lewis
is a real bourgeois, a pious and engaged middle-class man.
Throughout his life journey – at least the one that is available to the
public through his internet confessions – it seems that Lewis acquired all
sorts of meanings, but also lost others. He laments the loss of myths and
roots in a world where only the ‘rootless’ is celebrated, the loss of local
identity where only those with multiple identities are successful, and the
loss of precious faith where reason is dominant. His personal biography
situates him in a global world. His message and the means of its transmis-
sion are also global. But Lewis craves for his local roots. He also longs for
208 Contesting the Saudi State

the reinstatement of faith in this supposedly rational world. He cannot

accept a world devoid of faith, God and his sovereignty. For Lewis man is
a rational being and should act according to rational principles, but these
actions must be guided and inspired by faith. They should emanate from
the love and submission to God, and a commitment to spread his word,
justice and law. He does not, however, call for an esoteric personal experi-
ence, a subjective salvation through a reinstatement of a degree of
enchantment in a disenchanted world. Lewis is by no means a mystic or a
Sufi in search of spells, magic and potions. Nor does he search for a psy-
chological awakening, a retreat into or merger with the divine order. He is
neither a Muslim puritan nor a mystic but is fully immersed in this world
and its materialism, although he feels guided by divine power, and
empowered by faith in a world where such empowerment is dismissed as
emotional, irrational, misguided and even destructive.
In addition to searching for glorious roots, Lewis is committed to a
constant search for a grand meta-narrative, a historical myth in which he
is the central character and his faith is the motivating force. He cannot
and will not accept a dismal state of exclusion from world history and
humiliation by its forces. Rather than clinging to past myths about a glori-
ous Islamic history, Lewis demands actions in this world which not only
bring him back from the periphery but place him at the centre of the
grand narrative about times and places. Simply put, Lewis aspires to
change the world by action. His Islamism is very much a modern phe-
nomenon, based on a strong belief in the ability to change the world.
While Lewis is modern, he also reacts to the modernity that has become
hegemonic not only in the Western world but also elsewhere, including
his own homeland. Changing the world by action is what Lewis shares
with Western Enlightenment thought.
In Western academic scholarship, real Islamist activists were studied,
analysed and commented on throughout the second half of the twentieth
century as part of the study of ‘radical Islam’, ‘fundamentalism’,
‘Islamism’ and, more recently, ‘terrorism’. This became even more
urgent after the collapse of Communism, when it seemed to several
Western scholars that Islamism is the only remaining challenge to
Western hegemony, liberal democracy and value system. Both in the West
and in the Muslim world, there were those who liked to present current
problems in terms of a polar opposition between the civilised West and
the irrational, fanatical Muslim other.30 This presented the West with an
enemy, the ‘irrational other’ against whom it can define itself and draw its
boundaries, while at the same time its image as a repository of reason and
rationality began to be deconstructed by Western post-modern critiques.
As Western rationality and modernity began to be questioned – and even
Debating Salafis: Lewis Atiyat Allah and jihad 209

condemned – by post-modern critics, the defenders of Western moder-

nity misguidedly considered Islam to be the ultimate threat, whereas in
fact the onslaught on the rationality of the Enlightenment had actually
started in the twentieth century in the West itself. The West’s responses to
the crumbling of its own narrative about its rationality encouraged a con-
demnation of the other, who is now believed to be the antithesis of
Western Enlightenment. The bipolar discourse of the West gave the
Muslim world the opportunity to define its failure and humiliation as a
product of Western aggression. Muslims themselves, through their own
discourse, preferred to see themselves as that other, whom the West has
condemned. Dismissing these explanations proved to be difficult, espe-
cially when the reality of the interaction between the West and the
Muslim world appeared to justify an even greater belief in the credibility
of the explanation – that is, the divide between ‘us’ and the ‘other’.
Social science paradigms developed and nurtured in the age of reason
searched for explanations that would situate Lewis and his like in the
realm of rationality. If Lewis was a megalomaniac, a psychopath or a serial
killer, then only medical science could deal with his personal problems,
while criminal justice carries the burden of punishing him and locking
him away behind bars or in rehabilitation centres, depending on where he
is caught. However, Lewis is a social phenomenon and a political liability
for the West – and, some would argue, the Muslim world and beyond.
Lewis is today defined as a world menace.
Lewis is text and context. Lewis is also religion and politics. As such,
understanding the phenomenon became a priority across the globe.
While the humanities took care of text and language,31 social scientists
searched for the context that in all their paradigms (functionalist,
Marxist, structural functionalist, modernist and post-modernist) would
eventually explain the phenomenon by delineating the causes producing
it.32 In these paradigms, Lewis and his predecessors cannot remain irra-
tional outcasts. They have to be understood as rational actors, although
their actions are seen as irrational. In several scholarly works, Islamists
such as Lewis are described as irrational rational actors. Part of this
obsession with understanding Islamists is an obvious desire to control
them and prevent others from emerging. Control can take several guises,
ranging from direct military options to more subtle ways of changing the
contexts that are believed to produce people like Lewis. This logic suffers
from an obvious confusion between context and cause.
Identifying the context is important. Yet the methodology and assump-
tions used to draw the contours of the context do not seem to provide the
full story behind Lewis. In fact, they tend to distort the reality of Lewis as
much as the translation of jihad as ‘holy war’ distorts and obliterates the
210 Contesting the Saudi State

various meanings behind such a concept. Here anthropological knowl-

edge cannot and should not confirm media and some scholarly and acad-
emic discourse which may describe Lewis as a criminal, ignorant,
marginalised, alienated, peripheral Jihadi who cannot adjust to the
onslaught of modernity or accept the hegemony of the West in almost all
fields. Arguments about economic, social and political failures often list
poverty, alienation, marginalisation, unemployment, a search for Islamic
authenticity and pride; these either fail to identify the main causes or
paint a distorted picture consisting of a web of causal factors. It is often
believed that Jihadis emerge either from the neglected proletariat in the
suburbs of big Western cities and the Muslim world or the excluded pious
middle class, the dislocated and marginalised petite bourgeoisie of
ancient and traditional Muslim cities, thereby holding economic depriva-
tion and alienation responsible for producing the phenomenon. Some of
the attempts at identifying the context and characteristics of Islamists are
true reflections of milieu in which they grow. Yet causal relationships
remain elusive.
Lewis, the Saudi Salafi, interprets the world using a dimension which
includes an element often missing in social scientific Western paradigms,
namely faith. With the exception of a few examples, these paradigms do
not allow us to consider religion as an autonomous field and definitely
have no room for religion to be considered as an end in itself. Further-
more, Western paradigms insist that religion and politics are two separate
domains. In other cultural contexts, such as Saudi Arabia, the two are
inseparable, at least in the minds of the majority of Saudis. If ever faith is
acknowledged in Western paradigms, it is always reduced to a causal
factor that may inspire a particular behaviour, orientation and disposses-
sion while economic and material conditions are always held to be the ulti-
mate causes. But faith is never considered an autonomous end in itself.
Lewis cannot be understood without reinstating faith as an end in its own
right rather than as a cause. Also, Lewis cannot be understood if we con-
tinue to consider religion and politics as two distinct fields of enquiry. At
this juncture, it is important to reinstate that ‘religious convictions – as are
all convictions worth the name – are far too complex to be either reduced
to an option in the market place of ideas or minimised as a refuge that pro-
vides emotional peace and comfort’.33 Lewis may have sought solace in
religion against a background of dislocation and confusion, but he saw in
it a force that would enable him to understand the world and change it at
the same time. He found in religion faith and will. As a Muslim intellec-
tual, Lewis does not reject modernity. He reformulates it.
6 Searching for the unmediated word of God

Remove the Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula

al-Katib 5, anonymous Saudi internet author

Lewis Atiyat Allah is but one activist who aspires towards reformulat-
ing modernity according to his own principles. Other Saudis are equally
concerned with the same questions that torment Lewis, but their preoc-
cupation may differ in its focus and strategy. Yet they all have one
common denominator: the search for the unmediated word of God. This
search is at the heart of the Saudi debate in the twenty-first century.
Previous chapters demonstrated that official ulama, Sahwis and Jihadis
are engaged in fierce intellectual battles over religious interpretation.
None of these battles is likely to go as far as openly challenging the reli-
gious discourse of the ancestor, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, or the
heritage of aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya. However, contesting this heritage –
or at least the way it is practised, applied and interpreted by official schol-
ars – is an ongoing intellectual preoccupation.
Traditional Saudi ulama regard themselves as the intellectual heirs of
the reformer’s heritage and as the only true Muslims. Both dissident
Sahwis and Jihadis consider many contemporary official ulama to be
latecomers who corrupted the initial original message of the reformer
under the patronage of the Saudi regime. They both aspire to free reli-
gious interpretation from their monopoly. This position was particularly
clear among those described previously as Salafi–Ikhwani and Jihadis. Yet
not many activists openly scrutinise the interpretations of the ancestor. If
they have minor reservations about the eighteenth-century message, they
remain silent in the public sphere. It is assumed that the official public
sphere is not yet ready for an open critical evaluation of the roots of
Wahhabism. In public the majority considered the first Saudi–Wahhabi
polity (1744–1818) as the exemplary monotheist state. Some extend
this positive evaluation to cover the second state too (1824–91).1 A
small minority amongst them may have theological reservations on
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab granting the oath of allegiance not only
212 Contesting the Saudi State

to one Saudi ruler but also to his descendants after him, according to the
alleged pact between the reformer and the ruler of Deriyyah.2
Against silence in the public sphere, many Saudis are concerned with
Wahhabi violence, both symbolic and real, against their own Muslim
society, commonly referred to as ahl al-qibla (the people who face Mecca
for prayer), a term that includes all Muslims regardless of sect or school of
jurisprudence. In alternative public spheres such as opposition publica-
tions abroad and anonymous internet discussion forums, Saudis openly
denounce the demonisation of their ancestors and religious traditions.
Two groups are vocal in expressing strong rejection of the Wahhabi his-
torical and theological narrative: the Shii s of the Eastern Province and
some of the Hijazis of the Western region.3
Hijazis resist Saudi–Wahhabi hegemony through revival of Hijazi
identity and heritage. In this context, the restoration of a building dating
back to the Ottoman period becomes an act of defiance that the regime
watches very carefully. Similarly, the highlighting of the destruction of
archaeological sites such as the burial places of the Prophet and his
companions becomes a political act challenging contemporary religio-
political domination.4 The revival of Sufi dhikr (devotional recitation)
circles is also an act of defiance, which the government did not spare
time to suppress.5 Since 11 September the government has turned a
blind eye to such things. It can always rely on a number of official
scholars who denounce Hijazis for ‘worshipping graves’, thus discredit-
ing their religious tradition by associating it with shirk (associationist
In the case of the Shiis, refuting Wahhabi religious discourse that
denounces them as rafidha (rejectionists) and polytheists is the beginning
of a process of regaining recognition on the religio-political map of Saudi
Arabia.6 This is disguised as a quest to be included as ‘partners in the
nation’, the title of a Shii petition submitted to the king in 2003.7 Both
Shiis and Hijazis search not only for recognition and partnership but for
greater local autonomy as well. In a previous publication I highlighted
various timid attempts by the two groups to challenge Saudi narratives.8
It remains to be seen whether such cultural and religious activism will be
translated into serious political demands calling for ‘separation’ from the
Saudi–Wahhabi polity. So far both groups have emphasised their alle-
giance to the regime by playing on the theme of wataniyya (citizenship), a
new slogan that was raised after 11 September, and the increase in Jihadi
violence. The government was extremely responsive. It allocated a few
places for Shiis and Sufi scholars in the National Dialogue Forum. When
a known Sufi Hijazi scholar died in 2004, Crown Prince Abdullah visited
the family and offered his condolences.
Searching for the unmediated word of God 213

What concerns me in this chapter is how contesting the Saudi–Wahhabi

heritage is today taking place from within the rank and file of people who
are part of the intellectual tradition that I identified as Wahhabi–Salafi.
This chapter documents how Saudi Salafis search for unmediated knowl-
edge about religion, history and politics.

The pillars of Saudi authoritarianism

History, theology and politics are the pillars of authoritarian rule in Saudi
Arabia, and enforced a tradition whereby political acquiescence is
worship. While authoritarianism of course relies on the exercise of a
certain degree of direct physical coercion and oil revenues, it is much
more dependent on sacred narratives about the past and present. Such
narratives create consent without the need to continuously exert direct
repression or regularly distribute handouts. In the twenty-first century,
this consent is gradually giving way to contestation.
Today Saudis have direct access to religious knowledge and alternative
sources of interpretation. More people read, rather than recite, the
Quran. As such they are less dependent on traditional transmission of
religious knowledge, although the official religious narrative is reiterated
in every public platform, including audio-visual and print media, univer-
sities and mosques. Equally, more people are aware of the multiple histo-
ries of Saudi Arabia that are available in bookshops in London, Paris,
Washington, Beirut, Cairo, Istanbul and Bahrain. Many Saudis denounce
the monopoly of official Wahhabi ulama over religious interpretation and
their demonisation of other Muslims who do not share their interpreta-
tions. With increased exposure to other discourses and mass education,
mainstream Saudi intellectuals and scholars are involved in a revisionist
trend whose main objective is to deconstruct this monopoly and search
for the unmediated word of God, the true and authentic Salafiyya that is
not corrupted by ulama close to power. Mass education has made official
ulama one category among several others. Searching for the unmediated
word of God means dismantling religious monopolies and intellectual
cartels. For many Saudi Salafis, the project represents a return to the
‘true’ and ‘real’ Salafiyya, a Salafiyya that is outside the iron fist of previ-
ous and contemporary religious scholars. It is a return to the book, the
tradition of the Prophet and a narrowly defined circle of very early pious
ancestors (immediate contemporaries of the Prophet, usually referred to
as al-muhajirun (the Muslims who migrated from Mecca with the
Prophet) and al-ansar (Madinan supporters of the early Muslim immi-
grants). This definition of al-salaf immediately excludes latter-day ulama
and interpreters of the tradition. Many Saudis argue that this was the
214 Contesting the Saudi State

original project of the reform movement, the Wahhabiyya itself. Today,

the quest for the unmediated word of God is also a search for unmediated
historical, theological and political interpretations.
Saudis are beginning to deconstruct the three pillars of authoritarian-
ism. A glimpse of this deconstruction is found in the writings and posi-
tions of many Saudi intellectuals, ulama and others who are not yet part
of an organised group or movement. Their uncoordinated efforts at artic-
ulating a critical view of history, theology and politics appeared in many
unofficial forums, publications and debating circles. Those who are
openly involved in presenting the clearest and most articulate revision of
the pillars of authoritarianism are subjected to state repression, including
suspension from their professions and imprisonment. Others prefer to
remain anonymous, writing in internet discussion boards and forums.9

Liberating history from Wahhabi domination

In Saudi Arabia the past is a theological rather than a historical narrative.
Its contours are mediated by an early generation of Wahhabi ulama who
were both religious scholars and chroniclers. While emerging Arab
nation-states replaced their theological history with modern ideological
historical narratives, Saudi Arabia continued to propagate religious nar-
ratives about the past.10 As mentioned in the first chapter, the theological
narrative about the past emphasises the blasphemy of the population of
Arabia prior to the reform movement, in an attempt to justify the wars
waged by the Saudi Wahhabi forces since the eighteenth century. War is
justified only if Muslims fought were blasphemous. Only then does their
slaughter fall within the parameter of legitimate jihad in Wahhabi inter-
pretations because it is presented as a struggle against the mushrikun
The Saudi–Wahhabi historical narrative is today contested. A Saudi
Islamist who prefers to remain anonymous is engaged in rewriting Saudi
history. During the context of several long conversations, he argued that
Wahhabis were the contemporary Kharijites of the Muslim world. My
informant was highly articulate and knowledgeable about both the past
and the present. In addition to his professional training, he is well versed
in religious matters. He endorsed calls for re-establishing a glorious
Muslim caliphate. According to him, it was the Wahhabis who con-
tributed to the downfall of this caliphate in modern times – in accordance
with imperial British policy. He drew my attention to an internet
pamphlet–book entitled Who are the Kharijites? In this book, the author,
Abdullah al-Qahtani (a pseudonym), dedicates a chapter to the refutation
of Wahhabi claims about the blasphemous and associationist nature of
Searching for the unmediated word of God 215

other Sunni Muslims, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the Muslim
world.11 A compilation of theological and historical sources, the book has
become a reference document for those Saudi Islamists who object to
Wahhabi domination of the Salafi religious map. After all, not all Islamists
in Saudi Arabia are Wahhabis.12
Ironically, the author relies on Wahhabi chronicles that documented
the expansion of the movement since the eighteenth century.13 However,
while these chronicles glorify this expansion and consider it a jihad
against the blasphemous and associationists of Arabia, al-Qahtani decon-
structs this thesis. He hopes to demonstrate that Wahhabis were not only
historical enemies of Muslims but also agents of foreign domination,
mainly the British. According to al-Qahtani, Wahhabis served British
interests twice. In the eighteenth century they undermined the unity of
Muslims and threatened the Ottoman Empire. In the twentieth century,
they ousted the Sharif of the Hijaz after the latter objected to British
plans. Al-Qahtani claims that the Wahhabis were a British creation
intended to undermine the Ottoman Empire, divide Muslims and
weaken their unity.
Both al-Qahtani and my informant cite a book that circulated on the
internet. The book is entitled Confessions of a British Spy, and is also
known as Memoirs of Mr Hempher,The British Spy of the Middle East.14 It is
claimed that it was written by a man called Hempher, a British agent who
allegedly met Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Basra and convinced
him to work towards dismantling the Ottoman Empire. After meeting Ibn
Abd al-Wahhab, Hempher wrote, ‘I was happy because I was sure that
this ignorant and morally depraved man was going to establish a new sect,
which in turn would demolish Islam from within, and that I was the com-
poser of the heretical tenets of this new sect.’15 After 2001, Hempher’s
book became very popular among Saudi dissidents who denounced
Wahhabiyya and Saudi hegemony; references to it flooded Saudi internet
discussion boards. The book is also endorsed by several dissident Sunni
websites. The book, however, is a recent creation that cannot possibly
reflect accurate history. It is a constructed narrative that has been revived
by Wahhabiyya’s opponents.
In al-Qahtani’s narrative, Wahhabis are portrayed as friends of infidels
and enemies of Muslims. Such depictions resonate with present con-
cerns. Al-Qahtani invokes the past in order to explain current Saudi
alliance with the West, mainly the USA. His story about Hempher
substantiates his accusations.
According to al-Qahtani, Wahhabi fanaticism towards other Muslims
served only the interests of the enemies of Islam. The past is invoked here
to explain the present. An alleged relationship between Wahhabis and a
216 Contesting the Saudi State

British spy in the eighteenth century is used as a historical precedent that

set the scene for later conspiracies against Muslims in fulfilment of impe-
rial intrigues. Several conclusions are often drawn from such references.
One may argue that if Wahhabis were responsible for 11 September, then
their actions contributed to demonising Muslims and Islam. The War on
Terror, interpreted as a war on Muslims, would not have been launched
had Wahhabis not provoked it. Other conclusions are equally possible.
Wahhabis could not have been involved in the events of 11 September
because throughout their history, starting with the overtures of Mr
Hempher, they were friends of the infidels. Those who endorse this view
argue that Osama Bin Laden could not possibly be described as a
Today the past as inscribed in the Wahhabi tradition and taught in
Saudi history textbooks is subjected to reinterpretation by a wide circle of
Saudis. These interpreters may or may not include well-known histori-
ans, but no doubt some of them are searching for an unmediated narra-
tive that suits their own ideological and political orientations. Revising the
past means revisiting the legitimacy of the so-called ‘state of monothe-
ism’. While Hijazis, with the exception of a small minority, and the major-
ity of Shiis were historically opponents of Wahhabiyya and Saudi
domination, today the circle is wider than that. It includes those who were
brought up on its teachings but for various reasons began to challenge its
historical–theological narratives. However, those who challenge these
narratives face repression. It seems that Wahhabis have succeeded in
enforcing the myth that without the Saudi royal family Islam is under-
mined, and that without the Al-Saud, Arabia would have continued to be
the land of pagans and associationists. To be a good Muslim one needs to
believe in Al-Saud. Revisiting the past is an attempt to prove that the
Saudi–Wahhabi alliance was responsible for chaos and discord rather
than unity among Muslims.
While Wahhabi expansion in Arabia is always described in Saudi narra-
tives as conquest in pursuit of spreading monotheism among a nearly
pagan society, al-Qahtani paints a horrific picture of Saudi–Wahhabi
atrocities against other Muslims, both inside and outside Arabia, commit-
ted in the name of God and jihad. His examples start with the eighteenth
century and continue to the present day. He mentions the people of Taif, a
mountainous summer resort that fell into the hands of the Saudi–Wahhabi
forces during the early conquest of the Hijaz in the nineteenth century and
later in the twentieth century. He claims that Taif was attacked ‘to liberate
it from blasphemy, according to Wahhabi legends. They killed men and
women, looted the city and its libraries and mosques. They killed
Abdullah al-Zawawi, the Shafi mufti, Sheikh Abdullah Abu al-Khayr,
Searching for the unmediated word of God 217

Qadi of Mecca, and Sheikh Jafar al-Shaybi.’ In the twentieth century,

Wahhabis fought Sharif Husayn who ‘refused British orders to give
Palestine to the Jews. The Wahhabis, under the leadership of Khalid ibn
Loay, Faysal al-Duwaysh and Sultan ibn Bjad, attacked and sacked the
Hijaz to frighten the sedentary and nomadic population.’16
The author reminds his readers that Wahhabis looted the holiest of all
cities, Mecca. He writes, ‘They never showed leniency. They left Meccans
hungry. Meccans sold the jewels of their women to buy food. They
starved; some ate donkeys and dead animals. The price of dog meat went
up. How could they fight in Mecca when the Prophet himself prohibited
violence in the sanctuary?’17 Al-Qahtani not only highlights the plight of
Hijazis, he defends the Najdi population of Arabia, which was subjected
to similar atrocities and injustices. He shows that Wahhabis demonised
other Sunnis and rejected their interpretations in order to justify their
expansionist wars in Arabia. According to the author, Wahhabis killed
Muslims in mosques after Friday prayers. He cites evidence of Ibn Abd
al-Wahhab himself who described the ruler of Uyaynah, Othman ibn
Muamar, as ‘a blasphemous associationist. Muslims vowed to kill him
after Friday prayer. He was killed in Rajab 1163AH.’18 Al-Qahtani argues
that an apostate should not be treacherously assassinated. Instead, he
should be asked to repent. He concludes that Wahhabis terrorised the
population in pursuit of booty rather than monotheism.
Al-Qahtani moves from history to geography when he challenges the
Wahhabi ‘map of blasphemy’. In Wahhabi narratives, after the conquest of
Najd towards the end of the eighteenth century, the land beyond it became
the land of blasphemy where religious innovations reigned. As mentioned
in the first chapter, Wahhabis called upon Muslims to abandon these blas-
phemous regions and migrate to the land of Islam – the area under
Saudi–Wahhabi domination. Invoking the Prophetic tradition which con-
sidered Najd as the land where sins will appear, al-Qahtani’s historical
narrative becomes theological as he quotes the Prophet to prove that the
Wahhabi homeland was described as the land of earthquakes and discord,
‘hunak al-zalazil wa al-fitan wa biha yatlu qarn al-shaytan’. According to
al-Qahtani, some Wahhabi scholars argued that in this Hadith the Prophet
referred to Najd al-Iraq, the elevated land of Iraq, rather than Najd of
Arabia. Using several quotations, al-Qahtani asserts that the Prophet
meant the geographical area where false Prophets and apostates appeared
immediately after the death of Prophet Muhammad: Najd of Arabia. In
modern times, it was the homeland of the Wahhabis. Najd, like Wahhabi
history, is today a contested region. Wahhabis consider it the homeland of
the monotheists, aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya; their opponents see it as the
land of past and present apostates. The latter recall the tradition of the
218 Contesting the Saudi State

false prophets, for example Musaylima al-Kadhab, to establish histor-

ical continuity.19 The theological history propagated in Wahhabi religio-
political discourse generates equally implausible counter-narratives. In the
eyes of opponents of Wahhabiyya, Najd becomes the land of blasphemy
par excellence. What evidence is better than the words of the Prophet?
The official sanctification and mystification of Wahhabiyya leads to unrea-
sonable demonisation of its homeland and people.
Internet discussion forums are today the battleground between sup-
porters of Wahhabi interpretations of the past and their opponents. Al-
Katib 5 contributes to the debate about history and Wahhabiyya. Like
al-Qahtani, he does not reveal his real identity. He praises the intellectual
abilities of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, but does not shy away from
criticising some of his views. He denies that the reformer renewed faith,
because ‘faith does not get old’. He contextualises the reform movement
by discussing the social and economic conditions that prevailed in Arabia
at the time. He argues that Arabia was backward, illiterate and poor.
Consequently, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab followed strict and radical interpreta-
tions of the Hanbali fiqh to remain on the safe side in this specific social
context. He should, however, have indicated to his followers that his
approach was suitable for that time only and should not be taken as a
standard path to be followed after him. Al-Katib 5 laments the evolution
of the relationship between the Saudi royal family, whom Ibn Abd al-
Wahhab ‘installed as the political authority’ and the ulama, the guardians
of the sharia. The latter have become a ‘media front’ (jabha ilamiyya), to
enforce the legitimacy of the regime. The ulama have been reduced to the
role of poets who follow and praise the leadership. Al-Katib 5 offers his
reflections on the contemporary state:
When Abdulaziz al-Saud, the legendary leader, returned to Riyadh to establish a
‘Kingdom without Borders’ he was assisted by the Ikhwan, who were courageous
and loyal men, but they were also simple. They had no thinkers and ulama
amongst them. We hear secular writers describing the Ikhwan as thugs and
robbers to justify their suppression after the unification of Arabia. Thugs are
usually united by a thug. Does this mean that King Ibn Saud was one of those
thugs? The Ikhwan were faithful to the principles of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab but they
confused the general principles with the minor principles.20

In another article, al-Katib 5 starts with a provocative title, ‘Remove

Wahhabis from the Arabian Peninsula’, thus invoking the Prophetic
Hadith calling upon Muslims to remove infidels from Arabia, referred to
earlier in this book. He explains:
Wahhabiyya became dormant until after the nationalist and revolutionary trends
of Nasir swept the Arab world. Wahhabiyya re-emerged with the intention of
Searching for the unmediated word of God 219

widening its influence. It aimed to Islamise society but in fact its real objective was
to increase its influence in the political field. The Saudi regime sanctioned
Wahhabiyya hoping that it will serve its own interests . . . Wahhabis are used to
repress those who do not agree with them. They discredit people by labelling
them kafirs or secularists. They claim to represent Saudi society but they do not.
Wahhabi fatwas never condemn the state; they never object openly to usury and
corruption. They never call for freedom, justice, and equality. Wahhabiyya sancti-
fied individuals and families like Sheikhs Ibn Baz and Ibn Uthaymin. Ibn Baz
allows Muslims to seek assistance from infidels to fight a Muslim state while Ibn
Uthaymin forbids women to wear jeans because that is regarded as imitating the
corrupt infidel West. How could Wahhabis continue to propagate contradictions?
When Wahhabis clash with the regime, they quickly abandon their principles in
favour of acquiescence.21
Al-Katib 5 exposes how the marriage between Wahhabiyya and politics
was detrimental because it led to the first losing its credibility. He invokes
the Afghan jihad as an example of how Wahhabiyya mobilised Saudi
youth to serve American interests. They
advised the youth to travel to Afghanistan where they were promised to meet the
sheikhs of jihad, Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, who were both righteous
men. The Saudi government was mistaken when it antagonised Bin Laden.
Wahhabis changed their mind after the eruption of violence in Saudi Arabia. Bin
Laden, Azzam and Qutb are now all considered terrorists. The sheikhs of
Wahhabiyya present themselves as patient preachers. In fact they preach only to
increase their wealth. Wahhabis repent and ask for forgiveness when faced with
the sword of Al-Saud. This is what happened to the Wahhabi Jihadi Sheikhs when
they appeared on television.22
Al-Katib 5 refers to the crisis of Wahhabiyya during the invasion of Iraq in
April 2003. He reminds his readers that the Saudi government was not in
a position to support or criticise the invasion. Wahhabis preferred to
preach that
the Americans were in Iraq to remove Saddam the blasphemous. Later they
preached that there was no flag under which jihad can be launched against
American occupiers. They considered the Iraqi government brought about by
American occupation as wali al-amr, who must be obeyed. They considered
resisting foreign occupation in Iraq as khuruj ala wali al-amr [rebellion against
the ruler].23
The crisis of Wahhabiyya is but an aspect of a general crisis experienced
by the contemporary state, according to al-Katib 5. His evaluation of the
1932 Saudi state highlights the ‘reasons for its imminent downfall’. He
lists several factors: the estrangement of the royal leadership from its
social base, its subservience to the USA, its inability to improve social and
economic conditions, its corruption and its injustice. He criticises the
nepotism that is practised in ministries run by princes. He argues that
220 Contesting the Saudi State

‘princes threaten the unity of the country because they rule in the
provinces as if these provinces are their personal property. Each local gov-
ernor operates according to his own whims.’ He cites the governor of Asir,
Prince Khalid al-Faysal, who he says has turned the region into a secular
emirate where dancing and singing dominate the cultural scene. ‘At any
turbulent moment in the future, the governor will be able to declare Asir
an independent state. The Saudi royal family is digging its own grave. It
shuts the door between itself and the people.’24 Al-Katib 5’s assessment of
the future of the country under Saudi rule is dark, yet he claims that his
allegiance, love and respect for the royal family drives him to issue this
bleak evaluation of the situation.
Responses to al-Katib 5’s articles vary. Some readers accuse him of
causing discord and encouraging chaos. Others call him a secular agita-
tor. More reasonable responses try to explain that he confuses Wahhabi
teachings with practice, and should not blame the mistakes of contempo-
rary Wahhabis on the original sources. His articles remain very popular,
both among those who agree and those who disagree with his reasoning.
Many Saudis search for alternative reflections on the past in order to
understand an uncertain present and future. This search is also a quest
for unmediated knowledge. While Saudis deconstruct the Wahhabi theo-
logical narrative about history and geography, it remains to be seen
whether they offer a plausible alternative narrative. Clear and convincing
alternative narratives often emerge in contexts where there is genuine
freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia in the twenty-first century is still far
from this. Resorting to the anonymous internet discussion boards is only
the beginning of the journey towards creating the right context. We will
now turn our attention to those who deconstruct Wahhabi theology itself.

Liberating theology from Wahhabi domination

A second feature of the Saudi revisionist trend is a preoccupation with
theological arguments. Some religious scholars aim to free the religious
field from the control of one single interpretation and challenge early
Wahhabi theological positions, especially those related to the alleged blas-
phemy of other Muslims, which Wahhabi scholars took to extremes. This
stance is represented by the work of a young sheikh, Hasan al-Maliki.
While al-Maliki’s ideas question eighteenth-century theological posi-
tions, they are also relevant to the contemporary context. His work is not
simply about how Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab misjudged the Islam
of his contemporaries when he branded them as polytheists and innova-
tors; nor is it about how later disciples have corrupted his original
message. Al-Maliki’s work is concerned with contemporary Saudi Arabia,
Searching for the unmediated word of God 221

a place where those who claim a profound adherence to the unmediated

word of God are blind followers of a previous generation of ulama that
has assumed sanctity. Their knowledge is mediated by the words of past
and present ulama. Al-Maliki endeavours to ‘expose the radicals among
the Hanbalis amongst us, a project which should not be portrayed as an
attack on Saudi Arabia, as often mistakenly interpreted by radicals’.25
In a book entitled A Preacher Not a Prophet, published outside Saudi
Arabia, Sheikh al-Maliki courageously violates a well-established and
revered taboo – the sanctity of the founder of the Wahhabi movement. Al-
Maliki questions this sanctity by invoking both Hanbali sources and the
legacy of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab himself. Al-Maliki’s book is a
revisionist reading of one of the most important books written by
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Kashf al-shubuhat (The Unveiling of
Doubt). Al-Maliki has two objectives. First, he traces how latter-day
Wahhabis departed from the main themes that were represented in Ibn
Abd al-Wahhab’s message. Second, and more importantly, he challenges
the theological judgements and exposes the errors of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab
The author reminds his readers of the reformer’s strong rejection of
great deference granted to interpreters of religion and his emphasis on the
importance of going back to the text as the primary source. Al-Maliki
considers the Wahhabi movement a revolution against the mystification
of al-awliya (pious men). He asks, how could contemporary Saudi ulama
grant the reformer a status that equates him with prophets when he
himself rejected such sanctity being granted to preachers and interpreters
of religion? His understanding of Wahhabiyya centres on how it emerged
as a movement that denounced excessive deference to interpreters of reli-
gion, yet contemporary Wahhabis showed nothing but excessive adora-
tion of the early Wahhabi scholars. Contemporary Wahhabi ulama,
according to al-Maliki, practise ghulu (radicalism) in defending their the-
ological ancestor. He argues that had the reformer been alive, he would
have denounced this radicalism. He proposes several steps to free the reli-
gious field from a radicalism that is centred on sanctifying the founder of
the movement. First, an awareness that religious interpretation is a
product of human effort helps to desanctify early scholars and allows stu-
dents of religion to reconsider their postulations without feeling that reli-
gion itself is threatened. Put differently, questioning early interpretations
and dogma does not mean questioning religion itself. Second, an asser-
tion that ‘among human beings we only follow the Prophet Muhammad’
is enough to dispel the sanctity of later interpreters.26
As he endeavours to challenge contemporary radicalism, al-Maliki
defines the ‘real’ Salafiyya. In his opinion, ‘we must not consider the
222 Contesting the Saudi State

reformer an infallible prophet. We must subject his writings to sharia rule

and evidence. We must not make him above sharia. We must follow his
words that comply with sharia and reject that which does not. We must
go back to sharia evidence rather than men’s words.’27 Al-Maliki explains
that in Saudi Arabia today there are two brands of Salafiyya, a corrupted
tradition based on lies and injustices and another tradition close to the
book and Sunna, propagated by people who subject the words of men to
those two sources.28 He articulates a profound quest for the unmediated
word of God. He is concerned that today in Saudi Arabia, radicals preach
against radicalism (‘ghulat yanhawn an al-ghulu’). He asks how contem-
porary scholars can denounce Jihadis, who resort to the texts of early
Wahhabi scholars that they themselves sanctify. He identifies the inherent
problems in Wahhabi theology, which depends heavily on genealogies of
knowledge. He proposes to revisit and, possibly, question the chain of
transmission. This questioning, in his opinion, should not lead to ques-
tioning faith or creed. Al-Maliki proposes dissociating the sanctity of reli-
gion from the words of men. While religion is a revealed sacred tradition,
knowledge about it is not. This position echoes similar arguments in the
Muslim world that highlight the distinction.29
Al-Maliki’s revisionist project is primarily concerned with the problem
of takfir (excommunication). As Wahhabis insisted that monotheism
should be exhibited in the heart, demonstrated in words and enacted in
behaviour, they widened the grounds upon which a Muslim can be
excommunicated. Al-Maliki questions whether Muslims can be judged
blasphemous if their actions violate the principle of monotheism because
they are simply ignorant. He refutes the evidence that justified claims that
Muslims who may have incorporated in their rituals certain practices,
such as supplication to pious men or visiting tombs, are blasphemous or
polytheists, a theological position that distinguished Wahhabi interpreta-
tions from other Sunni schools. He strongly rejects Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s
claim that such blasphemous Muslims are more dangerous than the kafirs
of Quraysh in the age of ignorance. He argues that Wahhabis painted a
rosy picture of Qurayshi kafirs, who in fact denied the afterlife, practised
infanticide, allowed usury and deliberately destroyed human life, and
questions whether such people can really be considered better than
Muslims who utter the declaration of faith, al-shahada. Al-Maliki claims
that the reformer was so generous towards the kafirs in order to justify his
denunciation of Muslims who did not share his interpretations. He
concludes that Wahhabis share with the early Kharijites their excommu-
nication of Muslims who engage in maasi (minor sins), while at the same
time denouncing these Kharijites. Sheikh al-Maliki proposes starting a
process whereby contemporary ulama do not shy away from identifying
Searching for the unmediated word of God 223

and correcting Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s errors. Self-criticism is the first step
towards dealing with religious radicalism.30
Al-Maliki criticises the early Wahhabi position which accused whole
regions of blasphemy if only a small minority exhibited it. He attributes
this to the fact that from early days Wahhabiyya was a political project
aimed at dominating other territories in Arabia. According to al-Maliki,
the whole population of Hijaz and Asir, for example, should not be judged
blasphemous when only individuals may exhibit certain blasphemous
Al-Maliki’s views were, not surprisingly, denounced by official ulama.
He was dismissed from his job in the Ministry of Education and incurred
the wrath of other Wahhabi–Salafis in Saudi Arabia. Sahwi sheikhs and
Jihadi ideologues wrote epistles refuting his ideas. Some accused him of
being a covert Zaydi innovator who erodes the tenets of faith from
within.31 Although he declares in his books that he is a Hanbali Salafi, he
incurred harsh criticism.
Al-Maliki does not openly and directly question the religio-political
heritage of the Wahhabiyya. Like Judge Abd al-Aziz al-Qasim, mentioned
earlier in this book, he is concerned only with the theological aspects of
Wahhabiyya. This probably explains why state reaction to his revisionist
theology is relatively lenient, compared, for example, with the imprison-
ment of Abdullah al-Hamid, whose work directly challenges several polit-
ical innovations in the official Wahhabi tradition. To find critiques of the
religio-political Wahhabi tradition, one must turn to a different literature
and context, a task the following section aims to accomplish.

Liberating politics from Wahhabi interpretations

Liberating politics from the control of the Wahhabi religio-political dis-
course is a dangerous endeavour in Saudi Arabia because the exercise
challenges one of the most important and fundamental pillars of Saudi
authoritarianism. Contemporary politics that demands an absolute sub-
mission to rulers became theological. Professor Abdullah al-Hamid artic-
ulated a political vision grounded in alternative religious interpretations
that was deemed threatening. Al-Hamid is counted as an Islamist who
among others was part of a loose group that was consulted in the process
of producing the Memorandum of Advice and later establishing the
Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights in Arabia in 1993. He
was suspended from his job and was imprisoned in the 1990s. In 2003–4
he was involved in articulating drafts of various petitions calling for the
gradual evolution of the Saudi regime towards a constitutional monarchy.
He is best described as a member of a loosely defined Islamist intellectual
224 Contesting the Saudi State

trend that highlights the centrality of Islam as a reference framework for

future social and political change. The trend is grounded in the emphasis
on maqasid al-sharia (the objectives of sharia), which prioritises people’s
religious and worldly interest. Al-Hamid calls for a critical evaluation of
Islamic turath (heritage) and developing the spirit of openness, pluralism
and recognition of the intellectual, political and sectarian specificity of the
other.32 This approach is described as the rationalist and enlightened
trend dominant among a small minority of Islamist intellectuals, mainly
university professors, journalists and writers. In Western accounts, al-
Hamid is described as part of an emerging trend, referred to as Islamo-
liberal. Like other Saudis labelled as such, al-Hamid, however, would
consider himself a Salafi.
Al-Hamid draws attention to a serious derailment of religious dis-
course.33 This led to the disappearance of religious interpretations that
celebrate justice and freedom. Islam, according to al-Hamid has two
dimensions; one regulates ibadat (worship), and the other regulates
worldly matters. The first is concerned with the individual and his rela-
tion with God, whereas the second is ultimately concerned with relation-
ships between individuals in Muslim society. The first ensures personal
salvation, while the second governs the regulation of human life and asso-
ciation. According to al-Hamid, prayer is the most important ibada that
ensures personal salvation. Justice is the pillar of the second salvation, i.e.
the regulation of interpersonal relations. The practice of justice is as
important as performing daily prayers. At this junction, al-Hamid resorts
to the Quran as he cites verses describing the obliteration of previous
communities, not because they were kafirs, but because they paid lip
service to social justice. In an attempt to retain Salafi credibility, he
reminds his readers of Ibn Taymiyya’s assertion that ‘God makes a just
kafir state victorious over the unjust Muslim state’. In his interpretation of
religious heritage, al-Hamid argues that monotheism is linked to practis-
ing social justice. If present-day Muslims are backward, it is not because
they have ceased to perform the ritualistic aspect of their religion.
Backwardness is not a function of abandoning prayer. It results from
neglecting the obligation to enforce social justice. This justice is linked to
the practice of shura (real consultation by election rather than by appoint-
ment). Previous scholars whose work constitutes what is referred to as the
Islamic tradition did not pay enough attention to this important reality,
according to al-Hamid.
Al-Hamid attributes the neglect of consultation and social justice to
several factors. First, the predominance of Umayyad–Abbasid jurispru-
dence that grew in the shadow of despotic rulers. Second, the role played
by religious scholars who trivialised the contractual civil obligations and
Searching for the unmediated word of God 225

highlighted the centrality of ablution, supplication and Quranic recita-

tion. Such scholars buried tolerance, freedom and equality. He con-
cludes that slogans such as ‘Islam is the solution’ are doomed to fail if the
Umayyad–Abbasid heritage and jurisprudence are presented as the true
heritage of Islam. An Islamic renewal/reformation needs to be preceded
by deconstructing Umayyad–Abbasid visions of creed, jurisprudence,
civil and political obligations. ‘The Islamic heritage needs to return to
the holy book and the Prophetic tradition as practised by the Prophet
himself and his four caliphs in order to reach an understanding of good
political practice.’34
Al-Hamid deconstructs the meaning of wali al-amr, the one who deter-
mines and controls destiny. He laments how this meaning is now loaded
with notions of absolute rule and despotism. Because of the heavy inter-
vention of previous religious scholars, Muslims have succeeded in
‘Islamising oppression and backwardness’ under the guise of returning to
the pious ancestors and guarding authenticity. Some previous ulama
resisted this process of Islamising repression, but later they lost their
ability to resist. According to al-Hamid, Muslims inherited a tradition
that considers oppression an unavoidable and necessary evil, and regards
unjust leadership a natural political aspect of government. They cher-
ished security while neglecting justice. They eventually produced the the-
ological discourse that justified the police state, a contemporary version
of old despotism. When Muslim ulama issued a fatwa making it permissi-
ble to torture an accused person, they abandoned the civil aspect of Islam
and propagated political innovation disguised under an Islamic rhetoric.
Al-Hamid resorts to the words of Ibn Taymiyya’s student Ibn al-Qayyim,
who says: ‘Satan misleads Muslims. He may show them ninety-nine doors
that open paths to a secondary good but he will divert their attention from
one major good. Ulama were diverted from calling for just, consultative
rule. Satan knows that al-hukm al-jabri [coercive rule] leads to oppres-
sion, poverty and sins. Satan led the umma astray.’35
Al-Hamid argues that al-shab (the people) must participate in political
decisions because this is a sharia principle (asl). He does not consider an
appointed group who ‘tie and loose’ the real shab. The people must elect
their representatives. Al-Hamid resorts to the Quran. He mentions that in
the Quran God does not address the sultan even once. The Quran
addresses the umma. Therefore, it is incumbent on the umma to act in
pursuit of public good. Political participation must be protected by a
constitution and enacted in election. The conclusion al-Hamid draws is a
serious departure from the dominant official Wahhabi religio-political
discourse. His understanding of the meaning of wali al-amr – consulta-
tion, justice, political participation and elections – threatens religiously
226 Contesting the Saudi State

sanctioned authoritarian rule. Al-Hamid calls for the people rather than a
small circle of appointed representatives to participate in the political
process. Although he does not refer directly to contemporary politics or
mention the role of Wahhabi ulama, his revisionist arguments cannot be
read except as an attempt to liberate contemporary politics from the
control of past theology as well as contemporary manifestations of previ-
ous theological positions. The challenging nature of al-Hamid’s revision-
ist thought led to his imprisonment.
In his reconsideration of jihad, al-Hamid elaborates on the role of the
spoken and written ‘word’ (al-kalima) in pursuing the project of political
participation, consultation and election. According to him these are the
objectives of jihad madani (a civil jihad). The just word is not simply that
spoken by an alim who turns up in the ruler’s council to utter advice, and
leaves after having cleared his conscience. The word is
that spoken from a minaret, a sermon of a preacher, a treatise of an intellectual, a
play performed in theatre, and a poem that mobilises people. The word is not
simply a short summary. It can be a long analytical treatise, a petition that analy-
ses and reaches conclusions . . . Civil reform is an aspect of jihad in which all must
participate. The umma must be involved in jihad madani. The ammunition
of peaceful civil jihad is the pen, the tongue and social associations rather
than bullets.36
In order to protect those who utter words of justice, they must form
organisations, the seeds of an emerging civil society. Failure to do so will
lead to individual activists being arrested and suppressed. Al-Hamid
must have anticipated his fate, as he visited Saudi prisons several times.
To guarantee their safety, reformers must reach out to a constituency.
This constituency must be educated and involved in the project of jihad
madani. This position is contrasted with the exclusionist approach of
official Wahhabi ulama, whose views on the masses are often tarnished by
accusations of debauchery and blasphemy. Al-Hamid rejects their view,
which states that the masses are ‘gregarious savages who are dangerous
when they are united and beneficial when they are disunited. A reformer
must have a crowd (rahat) to protect him and support him, otherwise his
words are lost and his efforts are obliterated by the forces of repression.’37
Al-Hamid dismantles yet another pillar of the dominant religio-
political discourse, that which states that disavowing the abominable in
the heart or by the tongue (secretly) is enough. He argues that this strat-
egy does not reform a state. He uses the example of Muawiya (the first
Umayyad caliph) described as hakim jair (a despotic ruler), and Kemal
Atatürk, described as hakim kafir (a blasphemous ruler). In both cases,
change could not be achieved through the word of a small, educated
minority (nukhba). Reforming the state is incumbent on the participation
Searching for the unmediated word of God 227

of the masses through education and guidance. He reprimands those

ulama whose preoccupation was with jurisprudence that does not
‘reform a state, does not awake the umma, using the pretext that Muslims
must be patient when confronted with the power of the despot . . . even if
he steals money and hits backs’,38 a reference to official religious dis-
course that draws on weak Hadiths and cites Quranic verses out of
context in order to enforce and legitimise authoritarian rule, acquies-
cence and unconditional surrender to the will of rulers. Private advice
fails to achieve its objective, according to al-Hamid. It ‘is the beginning
rather than the end. A despot does not usually listen. Those ulama who
continue to defend secret advice to rulers must consider it a personal
choice that is not grounded in sharia evidence.’39 If they are content with
private advice, this must be their personal choice rather than a religious
obligation that binds all Muslims.
Al-Hamid rules out the argument that reforming the state is dependent
on the accession of a just ruler, especially when oppression becomes a
regime that is entangled with a wide circle of beneficiaries. He gives the
example of Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the Umayyad caliph celebrated in the
historical imagination of Sunni Muslims as a just ruler, who could not
prevent the decline of the Islamic polity although he personally had excel-
lent qualities. To ensure reform, society must be empowered through the
formation of independent civil institutions and an awareness of civil
rights. He calls for the emergence of the religious thinker who renews reli-
gion to replace the traditional religious scholars. Only the first can spread
awareness. As far as relations with political power, the only way is to give
and take. Politics is negotiation, but society must be strong to negotiate
with authoritarian rule.40
In this blunt critique of previous theology that justified oppression,
al-Hamid does not openly mention the Wahhabi tradition, but it is impos-
sible to read his intellectual productions without making the connection
between his revisions and the dominant religio-political discourse. He is
not involved in intellectual academic luxury. He aims to reform the domi-
nant Wahhabi discourse from within. He called for reform and paid a high
price for revisiting old grounds that are well established in official narra-
tives. However, he insists on clarifying that the ulama are interpreters of
religion rather than religion itself. Calls for reform should not be limited
to those under their patronage. The ulama have monopoly over fatwas,
yet it is the responsibility of society as a whole to engage in reform.
Al-Hamid calls for the breaking of the monopoly of the ulama when he
writes: ‘It is not appropriate to limit calls for reform to those very religious
members of society. A Muslim who exhibits maasi [sins] must not hold
himself from calling for reform. Equally those mutadayin [religiously
228 Contesting the Saudi State

observant people] should not think that they are the only ones who can
call for reform.’41
Al-Hamid blurs the boundaries between categories of people that are
now well established in Saudi Arabia as he propagates the right of all in
society to be engaged in the political process. Although al-Hamid is an
intellectual, he is a populist one. His main concern is to dismantle the rift
that has appeared in Saudi society between various categories of people,
namely the so-called mutadayin (religious) and ilmani (secular). He chal-
lenges the perception that only the former are guardians of public good
and initiators of reform. Although al-Hamid is counted among the intel-
lectuals, he does not shy away from demanding a serious engagement of
the people in all their traditions, backgrounds and education to partici-
pate in reforming state and society. His efforts towards redefining her-
itage and freeing Islam from past and present monopolies led him to
argue that contemporary associationist practices (shirk jadid) involve glo-
rifying rulers and worshipping them.
Al-Hamid moved from an intellectual revisionist project to political
activism in a document, ‘Islam is our Constitution: A Peaceful Call for
Constitutionalism and Civil Society’.42 In this document al-Hamid iden-
tifies the origins behind the failure of reform projects. The problem lies in
repression and monopolising the political decision-making process. He
deconstructs the myth that glorifies the rule of al-mustabid al-adil (the
just oppressor), as he argues that the myth is based on a contradiction. An
oppressor cannot possibly be just. The myth enforced coercive rule and
blocked the emergence of consultative justice, whereby society partici-
pates fully in the decision-making process. To regard reform as an elitist
project that excludes the umma is a position that will inevitably lead to
thwarting political reform. Reforming society and state are parallel
processes; one cannot be accomplished without the other.
Al-Hamid offers a reinterpretation of the role of the state, which is
limited to administering people’s will rather than subduing it. He chal-
lenges the view that ‘wali al-amr adra bil maslaha’ (the ruler knows public
interest best). The state is administration while the government is the
executive arm that translates people’s will into action and articulates the
objectives of sharia. To achieve these objectives, reformers must spread
the culture of civil society, through education, which in turn will lead to
establishing the institutional and constitutional basis for reform. Reform
is delayed in a country like Saudi Arabia because the vocabulary of consti-
tutionalism and civil society were suppressed. Saudis should not consider
the call for establishing the institutions of civil society as a call for party
politics (hizbiyya), but for empowering society in all its sections.
Al-Hamid invokes here the notion of citizenship (wataniyya). He argues
Searching for the unmediated word of God 229

that the national state must move society from sectarianism to an all-
encompassing citizenship. The state must be capable of absorbing diver-
sity and pluralism. According to him, this is the real meaning of the
Islamic state that incorporates diversity and difference. In order to
achieve serious reform, one must deconstruct the inherited Islamic polit-
ical jurisprudence that grew under previous repressive and authoritarian
rule. Obstacles to reform stem from the absence of jurists who are capable
of articulating political reform that highlights the benefits of constitution-
alism in an accessible language that draws on the holy book and the
Prophet’s tradition.
Al-Hamid highlights certain conditions in Saudi society that delay and
may inhibit the emergence of a constitutional reformist trend. The polar-
isation of society between those who call for Islamising society and the
advocates of modernity delays reform as neither emphasises the impor-
tance of constitutionalism. Furthermore, he laments the absence of social
values that promote accepting difference, pluralism, tolerance and peace-
ful resolution of conflict.
Al-Hamid diagnoses the problem in Saudi society as ‘the violence of
the minority and the apathy of the majority’. Society has not produced the
discourse of ‘peaceful change’. Rather, it encouraged polarisation and
radicalism. Al-Hamid recognises that by invoking the rhetoric of mod-
ernisation, the centralised state and the well-funded ulama were able to
destroy traditional organisation and local activism within the traditional
structures of the mosque, the tribe, the guild and other forms of tradi-
tional association. The state deployed substantial resources for this objec-
tive while the ulama provided religious legitimacy. The state failed to
replace these associations with unions, political parties and modern, all-
encompassing organisations. Al-Hamid acknowledges in passing that the
state was powerful as it purchased the means of coercion to directly
oppress and spy on its citizens.
According to al-Hamid, Saudi Arabia is at a crossroads, with two com-
peting forces – those who practise violence and those who call for consti-
tutional reform. He praises elements in the royal family for ‘listening to
reformers, for example King Abdullah and Prince Talal’. The latter failed
in the 1960s when he called for constitutional monarchy because his
project was elitist. Today, according to al-Hamid, the call has a wider
social base. Society is ripe for this historical change. Al-Hamid overlooks
the circles of power that rule Saudi Arabia, the competing and conflicting
visions that dominate and sometimes paralyse the Saudi royal family.
Like many Saudi intellectuals, al-Hamid blames society, although he
occasionally alludes to the role of the oppressive state in fostering the
culture of polarisation, intolerance and violence. He does not give enough
230 Contesting the Saudi State

attention to the way the state itself, together with its available resources,
were extremely efficient and active in not only eradicating calls for reform
but also perpetuating the religious discourse that makes apathy, indiff-
erence and total submission to rulers a religious duty. Counting on sub-
stantial resources, the state used and deployed violence against others,
especially those who did not accept its project. For the use of violence to
be legitimate it needed the theorising of specialists. The ulama were
active agents in theorising and legitimising state violence. They were the
noblesse détat at a time when neither intellectuals nor bureaucrats or tech-
nocrats emerged.
According to al-Hamid, there are several groups who are more likely to
obstruct constitutional reform, the separation of powers and the estab-
lishment of civil society. He alludes to al-quwa al-mutadharira (those who
are hurt by reform). He lists high-ranking officials in the judiciary. Judges
are more likely than any other groups to obstruct and resist change, espe-
cially if it seems to threaten their privileges and monopolies. It is ironic
that the judges he identified as obstacles to reform are the same ones who
sentenced him to six years in prison in 2005. It was a Wahhabi state judge,
operating under the patronage of the Ministry of Interior, who con-
demned al-Hamid and other reformers to several years in prison. The list
of accusations was endless.

Rounds of petitions
Political activism and violence progressed hand in hand in Saudi Arabia
after 11 September. Intellectuals, ulama and professionals engaged in
dialogue aimed at strengthening calls for reform . . . A substantial
number of intellectuals and political activists believed that real political
reform could solve the problem of internal security, and regarded it as
the only shield against terrorism and violence. They thought,
correctly, that the violence had created an atmosphere in which the gov-
ernment was willing to listen to their demands and to the various calls
for reform that had started after 11 September. Under the pressure of
serious violence, the regime needed allies who would help it defeat the
terrorist menace.
The regime enlisted key political activists, intellectuals and ulama
(both official and Sahwis) in its war on terror. Even minority intellectuals
such as Shiis and Ismailis were given a platform to celebrate the common
national interest that overrides sectarian and regional identities. Activists
of all persuasions thought that as the government needed their aid in bat-
tling terrorism, they must extract from it not only willingness to listen to
their demands but also an undertaking to implement concrete measures
Searching for the unmediated word of God 231

to ease off tension. However, they miscalculated the readiness of the gov-

ernment to act in accordance with their reform agenda: listening to
demands was not the same as acting to promote the reformist agenda.
The war on terror was in fact used as a pretext to imprison peaceful
reformers, who were described as taking advantage of the violence in
order to cause chaos and discord.
The intensity of political activism that gathered momentum in 2003
was dubbed the ‘Riyadh Spring’; yet it precipitated a round of arrests and
restrictions on political activism. Political activists of all persuasions were
imprisoned for simple reasons, such as giving media interviews to Arab
satellite television, signing a petition or defending political prisoners.
Released prisoners signed documents forbidding them from communi-
cating with the media. Some were banned from travelling abroad, while
others had their passports confiscated. The euphoria of the 2003 Riyadh
Spring gave way to disappointment and demoralisation in 2004. The
common theme of all calls for reform was a serious quest for unmediated
history, theology and politics. Reformers strove to free themselves from
narratives of exclusion, subservience and obedience. They emphasised
wataniyya, an all-inclusive citizenship wide enough to incorporate
groups that had been marginalised or demonised. They all called for a
system in which ordinary people, through elected representatives, have a
major role in the political decision-making process – a revolutionary
demand in the context of Saudi Arabia, where only loyal appointees
enact royal will and power.
In order to articulate this reformist agenda, more than twelve petitions
were submitted between 2000 and 2004 to the main senior figures in the
royal family. The petitions are grouped into three categories: category I
included four petitions in support of Arab causes, Palestine and Iraq
being the most dominant themes; category II included six petitions
calling for constitutionalism and civil society; category III included three
petitions calling for respect for human rights, and recognition of Muslim
minorities (Shii and Ismaili) and women’s rights.43 These three cate-
gories reflected concern over Saudi Arabia’s position in the Arab world
and a perceived lack of real solidarity with mainstream Arab causes, the
deteriorating internal political scene and the status of the ‘other’ – reli-
gious minorities and women – in Saudi society. The petitions reflected
society’s frustration in the three major areas against a background of
apparent government failure to respond to the three challenges. They
stemmed from a general atmosphere in which revisionist trends began to
be consolidated.
Saudi reformers challenged history, theology and politics as they sub-
mitted their petitions. First, they asserted their historical connection with
232 Contesting the Saudi State

Arab and Islamic identity. Second, they challenged theological narratives

that both excluded and demonised the Muslim other. And third, they
undermined the dominant religio-political discourse that marginalised
society and excluded it from the political sphere.
A series of regional and international conflicts in Afghanistan, Palestine
and Iraq had led to an increase in political activism. However, one major
factor facilitated this process: local Jihadi violence. As mentioned earlier
in this book, the violent struggle in the way of God proved to be an agent
of change. The Saudi domestic scene witnessed more political activism
under the pressure of this violence than under any other factor.
In order to express solidarity with Arab causes, Saudi petitioners gener-
ated their own statements, bypassing government bureaucracy and will.
For decades the Saudi government had, through its representatives and
bureaucrats, articulated a vision that was described as shared by the
whole society. However, twenty-first-century Saudi activists mobilised
themselves to generate their own initiatives. They expressed solidarity
with the Palestinian second intifada, condemned ‘Sharon’s violation of
Jerusalem’, and objected to ‘Bush’s War on Iraq’.44
The second category of petitions addressed political reform. Together
with others, al-Hamid articulated the vision of constitutionalism and civil
society. In his various writings he identifies five urgent principles:
1. giving priority to political reform over economic, social, educational
and judicial reform;
2. grounding constitutionalism in Islamic jurisprudence;
3. promoting national unity and rejecting calls for division and partitions
along regional or sectarian lines;
4. supporting the Al-Saud leadership, which guarantees sharia and unity
of the country;
5. addressing state and society.
In order to start the process, more than five petitions were sent to the
leadership between 2003 and 2004. In January 2003, 103 intellectuals,
liberals and moderate Islamists signed the National Reform Document,
submitted to Crown Prince Abdullah. The list of signatories included a
mixture of Islamists and liberals. Whether this was the beginning of
the emergence of a united coalition of Islamists and liberals or an alliance
of convenience between ideologically incompatible partners is difficult
to judge.
The signatories of the reform document refrained from engaging in
serious discussion of the merits of having the Al-Saud family at the top of
the political system. They called, however, for radical political, economic,
judicial, educational and social reforms, aimed at redrawing the social
contract in such a way as to allow a wider section of society to share power
Searching for the unmediated word of God 233

and participate in the decision-making process. Their demands fall

within five main areas:
1. Political reforms: the building of constitutional institutions within the
parameters of what is permissible in Islam, the Quran and Sunna. This
involves the formation of an elected majlis al-shura (consultative
council) and local regional councils, an independent judiciary, citi-
zens’ rights, freedom of expression and assembly and the right to
establish civil institutions, (clubs, committees and unions). The peti-
tion does not mention the formation of political parties (ahzab
2. Economic reforms: implementing fairness and equal distribution of
wealth between the different regions, controlling public spending,
strengthening accountability of institutions, dealing effectively with
the national debt, creating job opportunities and diversifying the
3. Royalty–society relations: encouraging greater interaction between the
government and society, spreading the culture of human rights,
reforming public services and creating a greater role for women.
4. Reform initiatives: introducing a general amnesty for political prison-
ers, restoring civil rights to reformers, freedoms for intellectuals and
5. Invitation to national dialogue: creating a convention or a forum for
national dialogue and debate, which includes a representative sample
of Saudi society.45
This document demonstrated that certain groups (mainly intellectuals,
professionals and moderate Islamists) are willing to work with the royal
family as long as it is prepared to implement reforms. Moreover, their
current willingness to accommodate the Al-Saud within a constitutional
monarchy is attributed to their belief that since 1932 the Al-Saud have
destroyed traditional local leadership in the Hijaz, Najd, Asir and Hasa,
the previously autonomous regions which are today incorporated in the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The reformers did not envisage any other
group occupying the highest position of authority in the country. They
saw two options: ‘reform the Al-Saud and the dysfunctional state they
have created or wait for a long period of violence followed by a radical
Islamist takeover’; the consequences of either for the existence of Saudi
Arabia as state and society cannot be accurately predicted. The signato-
ries of the petition opted for the first option, namely reform the Al-Saud
and work with them. It is very misleading, however, to present the reform-
ers as a product of an autonomous and independent initiative. Their
discourse is not new: it echoes earlier 1960 proposals that emerged under
the patronage of Prince Talal ibn Abdulaziz. It cannot be ruled out that
234 Contesting the Saudi State

the constitutional reformists themselves had the patronage of key figures

among a number of Saudi princes, in addition to Talal and perhaps his
son al-Walid. The reformers’ activism, imprisonment and release in
August 2005 attests to a kind of royal connection. In fact it is almost
impossible to keep the momentum of the constitutional trend without
royal patronage.
The signatories of the January petition had internalised the Al-Saud’s
discourse on its central mediating role in Saudi society, without which
they believe that the disintegration of the country is more likely to take
place. While this remains the discourse that is presented in publications,
some signatories argue that their decision to support a constitutional
monarchy is a political strategy. Some believe that the Al-Saud are not
ready to share power and will never be ready to give it up, but that if the
government does not accept the demands of the January petition, partic-
ularly the establishment of an elected council, many Saudis will eventu-
ally be convinced that the moment has arrived to get rid of the Al-Saud
The 2003 petitions demonstrated that a liberal group has struck an
alliance with moderate Islamists inside the country. Crown Prince
Abdullah invited a small group amongst them, around forty-three signa-
tories, to attend a private session to discuss their demands. He announced
the establishment of a government-sponsored dialogue forum, the King
Abdulaziz Centre for National Dialogue, under royal patronage. The
centre was meant to encourage various sections of Saudi society to
discuss relevant contemporary issues under royal supervision.
In September 2003, another petition was released. In Defence of the
Nation was submitted to the crown prince on the Saudi national day (24
September 2003).47 The petition came after serious terrorist attacks and
confrontation between Jihadis and the government. It confronts the gov-
ernment with the problem of violence, and links the solution to serious
political reforms. It emphasises that ‘military solutions’ are not enough to
combat terrorism, and called for a serious revision of al-khitab al-dini
(religious discourse) in order to encourage pluralism and tolerance. It
also called for a timetable (jadwal zamani), within which reform is to be
It was followed by a new petition at the end of 2003. This reflected the
reformers’ impatience with government’s silence regarding previous peti-
tions. In Call to Leadership and People,48 reformers insisted on the
urgency of constitutional reform. They also reiterated that they are part-
ners in the nation, a plea to be included in political decisions. They criti-
cised the suspension of real political consultation and the marginalisation
of society, and emphasised that reform without institutions is unlikely to
Searching for the unmediated word of God 235

produce satisfactory results. They called upon the government to initiate

change ‘immediately’. This involves elections to a majlis al-shura (parlia-
ment) and a commitment to move towards constitutional monarchy. The
signatories expressed disappointment at government responses to previ-
ous petitions. ‘We reached a dead end with political leadership. Royal
figures do not have the intention to implement social, economic and
political reform. We say this with great sorrow. But we promise people to
continue our efforts in order to prevent the ship from sinking. Then the
losers are the nation and the citizens.’49
The Call to People involved a warning that delaying political consulta-
tion is harmful not only to society but also to religion. It seems that
reformers were calling upon the ulama not to obstruct change, remind-
ing them of the duty to take part in shan al-am (public affairs). They
assured them that a constitution guarantees the application of sharia,
justice and equality. Institutions play a role in ensuring people’s participa-
tion in promoting virtue and prohibiting vice, including favouritism, cor-
ruption and injustice.
The crown prince received the reformers and listened to their
demands. Other senior princes – for example, the minister of the interior,
Prince Nayef and the minister of defence, Prince Sultan – condemned the
calls for reform and described them as misguided and opportunistic.
They both expressed doubts regarding elections to a parliament. Prince
Sultan stated that ‘we can announce elections and forge them. If elections
take place, they will bring illiterate and ignorant people to positions of
leadership.’50 In a speech, Prince Nayef reminded Saudis of the role of the
sword in the unification of Arabia. He summoned around twenty signato-
ries and reprimanded them. They assured the prince that the constitu-
tional monarchy they envisage is not like the one that exists in Britain, but
is similar to the political system in Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco.51
By March 2004 several petition signatories, political activists and
lawyers had been put in prison. The government fought both Jihadis and
reformers simultaneously. While repression continued through out 2004,
together with another round of Jihadi violence, the government contin-
ued to invoke the rhetoric of reform. The sessions of the National
Dialogue Forum, together with the promise to carry out limited munici-
pal elections, were considered the beginning of a new era. While the dia-
logue sessions were meant to allow a wide section of intellectuals and
activists to debate the future of the country, in reality they became yet
another weapon in the war against terror. It seemed that the whole
purpose of the dialogue was to gather supporters for the regime against
Jihadi violence, rather than serious political reform. The regime enlisted
intellectuals, activists, ulama and others to have dialogues that lead to
236 Contesting the Saudi State

policy recommendations, but the regime is under no obligation to imple-

ment these recommendations. Up to 2005 the National Dialogue Centre
organised five rounds of sessions discussing education, women, the youth
and accepting the other. Against official celebration of the beginning of
dialogue in Saudi Arabia that accompanied the sessions, it was reported
in the official press in September 2005 that the coming ‘Others and Us’
session seemed to have had a less than encouraging start: ‘Not even
Jiddah’s hot weather helped warm up the preparatory discussions . . . the
participants in both the men’s and women’s halls of the Meridian hotel in
Jiddah were almost sleepy as they read from their previously prepared
papers. Some of them were seen paying more attention to the gum they
were chewing or the pens they were playing with.’52 Did the participants
come to the conclusion that such sessions were futile and less likely to
lead to serious change? Or was this an official reporting that disparages
the participants and their apathy, perhaps to send a message of some sort?
With King Fahd on the verge of dying for more than a decade, Saudi
politics and activism reached a standstill in 2005. The media campaigns
surrounding local municipal elections, together with various public-
relations exercises glorifying government success in killing various
al-Qaida leaders in the Arabian Peninsula, diverted attention from the
failings of the regime. Several activists were released from prison on con-
dition they stopped all activities deemed illegal. Al-Hamid, together with
Matruk al-Falih and Ali al-Damini, were sentenced to six to nine years in
prison. The euphoria of the Riyadh Spring, together with the wave of
petitions, stopped completely.
The regime immediately started its propaganda counter-offensive.
Armed with substantial wealth, thanks to the dramatic increase in oil
prices in 2004–5, it flexed its muscles after each violent encounter with
Jihadi violence while its courts dealt with peaceful reformers. The rift
with the USA was beginning to be mended. In 2005 Crown Prince
Abdullah visited President Bush in Crawford, thus marking a return to a
harmonious relationship. A televised trip to a local American supermar-
ket capturing the crown prince munching potato chips and casually con-
versing with young American girls was meant to convey a new image.
More serious discussions took place behind the scenes. It was announced
that the US administration supports Saudi Arabia’s entry into the World
Trade Organisation by the end of 2005. It was assumed that Saudi Arabia
was committed to trade with all partners, including Israel, a price the
regime was willing to pay in order to be rehabilitated in Washington
after a period of estrangement. While the American administration mildly
criticised the imprisonment of Saudi reformers, the continuing
bad human and women’s rights record and the lack of religious freedom,
Searching for the unmediated word of God 237

it congratulated the Saudi regime for initiating a historical reform with

the half-elected municipal councils. With the Iraq situation moving from
bad to worse, it seemed that the tension between the USA and Saudi
Arabia following the 11 September was swept under the carpet for the
time being. The reform envisaged and demanded by the constitutional
reform group was put on hold. The reformers’ search for unmediated
politics collided with the factionalism that has taken hold of Saudi royal
politics in the last decade.53
Revisiting history, theology and politics is part of scattered intellectual
attempts, crystallising among individuals and groups of people in isola-
tion from each other. While they are all daring in their questioning of reli-
gious and political taboos, their efforts still allow room for negotiation
with the regime. Al-Hamid and his colleagues hold on to the royal family
and demand that it leads the reforms. They hope that Prince Abdullah,
now king, and his faction within the royal family, will adopt the proposed
reform. In all their petitions they consider the Al-Saud a symbolic unify-
ing force. Reformers insist that a constitutional monarchy does not neces-
sarily mean a British model whereby the king reigns but does not rule,
although the imprisonment of some of them suggests that this is what the
royal family understood from their petitions. Constitutional reformers
simply consider the ‘house’ in need of repairs, a view that is also expressed
by some members of the royal family such as Prince Talal ibn Abd al-
Aziz and Saud al-Faysal. In effect, al-Hamid’s proposed constitution
affirms the right of Al-Saud to rule indefinitely – in fact, it provides for
constitutional entrenchment of already-existing privileges and political
arrangements, hardly a situation that can be anchored in an Islamic inter-
pretation. It seems that after the present regime had exhausted its tradi-
tional theological base that had been developed by the official ulama over
generations, al-Hamid and his colleagues are in the process of injecting
the system with a new life, perhaps a prelude to the establishment of the
fourth Saudi state. The constitutional reforms not only confirm but also
legitimise the Al-Saud’s monopoly over political decisions.

Breaking chains: the Movement for Islamic

Reform in Arabia
Between 2003 and 2004, with the imprisonment of several political
activists inside Saudi Arabia, some Saudi intellectuals lost hope that the
anticipated political reform was possible. They remained silent, while in
public they praised the limited steps taken to lessen tension, for example
promises of half-elected municipal councils, and participating in national
dialogues. Other Saudis listened to another, older, voice, which had been
238 Contesting the Saudi State

calling for serious political change since 1994. While the Movement for
Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) was old – it had emerged in 1996 as a
splinter group from the Committee for the Defence of Legitimate Rights
in Arabia – in 2003 it acquired a satellite radio station and started broad-
casting not only its own programmes, but also anti-government state-
ments. It gave Saudis inside the country an opportunity both to listen to
alternative views and to contribute their own stories. MIRA called for the
complete overthrow of the ‘house of Saud’ and its replacement with a
different political system in which there is no place for hereditary rule or
Al-Saud privileges. It publicised its political reform programme, which
involved a serious departure from the status quo. I have discussed the
movement and its political programme elsewhere. 54 In this section, only
developments since 2001 will be dealt with.
The harsh measures against reformers inside Saudi Arabia seemed to
increase the attentiveness of Saudis to this London-based voice. From its
London headquarters, MIRA director Saad al-Faqih demands the over-
throw of the Al-Saud through peaceful means such as demonstrations
and civil disobedience. Al-Faqih mobilises Saudis to act in order to dis-
mantle the political system and install an elected ‘Islamic government’.
He shares several characteristics with al-Hamid: both activists, together
with other Islamists, were behind the Memorandum of Advice and the
formation of the CDLR which led to the flight of al-Faqih to London in
1993–4. The climax of their activism in the early 1990s culminated in the
famous Memorandum of Advice. Al-Faqih regards himself as part of the
Sahwi Islamist trend that gathered momentum during the Gulf War of
1990–1 and led to this famous document. However, while al-Hamid
remained loyal to the royal family, at least in public, al-Faqih gave up
hope that it will ever respond to demands for political reform or become
capable of reforming itself. While in an interview in March 1999, al-
Faqih clearly stated that ‘we are not ready to pull the tree with its roots
yet’, this did not mean that he anticipated that the ruling family was
responsive to calls for reform. In October 2003, he declared that the time
had come to work towards a ‘surgical’ operation ‘through envisaging a
reform programme where there is no room for Al-Saud’.55 To put pres-
sure on the regime and demonstrate its intolerance of peaceful political
activism, al-Faqih called for demonstrations in Riyadh on 14 and 23
October 2003. The stated objectives of the demonstrations were to high-
light the plight of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia to coincide with
holding an international conference on human rights in Riyadh. It was
estimated that around eight hundred people took part. As expected, secu-
rity forces arrested some activists and demonstrators and dispersed the
crowd. Another call for demonstrations in major Saudi cities was issued
Searching for the unmediated word of God 239

in December 2004. The Saudi regime surrounded the main areas where
the demonstrations were planned, and prevented people from reaching
them. The security forces were mobilised in large numbers to blockade
areas in Jiddah and Riyadh. The demonstration failed to materialise on
the designated day, although a very small number of activists managed to
Throughout 2003 and 2004 al-Faqih commented on the various peti-
tions that were handed to the senior princes, the last of which was the
aforementioned Call to Leadership and People. Al Faqih considers this
petition a courageous attempt by the signatories to express their frustra-
tion with the leadership. It shows that they reached a dead end. The fact
that it addressed the people as well as the leadership shows their realisa-
tion that reform cannot be achieved through addressing rulers only, and
that the only hope for real reform is in raising people’s awareness.56
When al-Faqih arrived in London in 1994 he gave the impression that
he and his colleague al-Masari were acting within the Sahwi trend that
was associated with the Memorandum of Advice. Immediately after set-
tling in London, he publicised the plight of imprisoned Sahwi sheikhs
such as Salman al-Awdah and Safar al-Hawali. However, after their
release from prison in the late 1990s, these sheikhs moved from con-
frontation with the regime to co-optation, a strategy that created a rift
between them and the exiled Sahwis, mainly al-Faqih and al-Masari. In a
manner reminiscent of their calls to Jihadis, the released Sahwis initially
called upon al-Faqih to ‘repent’ and return to Saudi Arabia. After 11
September and the outbreak of violence in Saudi Arabia, their concilia-
tory tone changed. Some famous Sahwi sheikhs – for example, Safar al-
Hawali and Muhsin al-Awajy – openly denounced al-Faqih for calling for
demonstrations. Sheikh Safar al-Hawali issued a public statement giving
what he claimed to be religious justification for non-participation in
peaceful demonstrations.
The more the rhetoric of the Sahwis inside Saudi Arabia moved
towards glorifying the Saudi royal family and its centrality in the envis-
aged political reform process, the more that of al-Faqih moved in the
opposite direction. Famous co-opted Sahwis continued to denounce him
publicly. While he refrained from openly criticising and naming individ-
ual Sahwis for their accommodation and cooperation with the regime, his
Sahwi ex-comrades, now adversaries, excelled in demonising him.
Together with the official so-called liberal Saudi press, they launched per-
sonal attacks on al-Faqih and his followers in order to discredit them. The
regime continued its efforts to silence al-Faqih’s radio channel (initially
known as Radio Islah, later Debate Channel and in 2006 PTV). In 2004
and for the first time, the Saudi press began to ‘mention’ al-Faqih by
240 Contesting the Saudi State

name after a long period of silence when he was only referred to as ‘the so-
called opposition abroad’. After calling for the October 2003 and
December 2004 demonstrations on his radio channel, his photograph,
together with that of ex-comrade Muhammad al-Masari, featured regu-
larly in the local press. Official Saudi demonisation of al-Faqih took a
more direct approach.57
Al-Faqih identifies the Saudi crisis as stemming from an absence of
political participation, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, an
independent judiciary and separation of powers. In his political pro-
gramme, there is no room for hereditary rule or sanctity to be granted to
the Al-Saud. Al-Faqih does not believe that the royal family is an agent of
unity, a symbol around which various sections of society can share
meaning. He believes that the umma must elect its leader. As a Salafi, his
quest for the unmediated word of God goes as far as to call for abolishing
the office of grand mufti and calling for pluralism in issuing religious
opinions – in other words, recognition of the four madhahib. The objec-
tive is to challenge dominant theological interpretations relating to
absolute submission to political authority. He considers the official
ulama who perpetuate such religious interpretations as equal accom-
plices in enforcing authoritarian rule. His Salafiyya is one that does not
recognise the authority of contemporary official ulama. It only acknowl-
edges the authority of the Quran and the Prophetic tradition.
While al-Hamid and his colleagues do not openly question the
‘Islamic’ credentials of the Saudi regime, al-Faqih states clearly that it is a
blasphemous regime (nidham kufr), that does not rule according to the
revealed word of God. Al-Faqih’s excommunication of the Saudi regime
falls short of naming individual princes as kafirs, thus avoiding the prob-
lematic issue of takfir al-muayan, the specific excommunication of indi-
viduals, which is, in his opinion, dependent on the ruling of religious
experts such as judges.58
Since 2001 and the US War or Terror, al-Faqih and other Saudi
Islamists were accused of links to Osama bin Laden by the US govern-
ment. The USA claims he bought a satellite telephone for Bin Laden in
1998, prior to the US embassy bombings in Kenya. He was also accused
of providing logistical support for Libyan agents on a mission to assassi-
nate Crown Prince Abdullah in 2004. A third accusation revolved
around an alleged meeting he and al-Masari had in the mid-1990s with
one or two of the Jihadis who carried out the Yanbo bombing. In
December 2004 the US government, together with Saudi Arabia, suc-
ceeded in putting his name on Security Council list of suspected terror-
ists, which led to the British government freezing his assets. The USA
demanded his extradition from Britain. On various occasions, British
Searching for the unmediated word of God 241

government and Foreign Office spokesmen argued that they have

no evidence against al-Faqih, and so far have resisted calls for his
After the 7 July London bombings, the Saudi regime capitalised on the
climate of fear in Britain and intensified its pressure on the British gov-
ernment to deport al-Faqih. In November 2005 the Guardian reported
that the Saudi government was engaged in negotiating a contract to pur-
chase Typhoon planes from Britain on condition that the latter expel al-
Faqih and al-Masari. The Saudi government denied the Guardian’s
allegations. At the time of writing al-Faqih was still broadcasting a daily
evening radio programme on PTV Radio, a satellite channel, from his
headquarters in north London. While his future in Britain is yet to be
decided, the programme continues. His MIRA website and discussion
board were suspended in July 2005, immediately after the London
bombing. By September 2005 the website had returned, but without the
discussion forum, which in the past had been occasionally used by anony-
mous participants to glorify jihad in various parts of the world. Al-Faqih
always claimed that he had no control over material posted on MIRA’s
discussion board and endeavoured to remove the postings immediately
after they appeared.
Is al-Faqih a covert Jihadi? Or is he a Sahwi Islamist who calls for the
peaceful overthrow of a ‘blasphemous’ regime? Is he a believer in ‘theo-
retical jihad’ (jihad nadhari)? Or is he simply a covert propagator of jihad
amali (practical jihad)?
According to official Saudi media, al-Faqih is an ‘al-Qaida agent in
trousers’.59A Saudi journalist goes as far as claiming that al-Faqih is ‘a
good target for Zionists and all those enemies of Saudi Arabia who recruit
him and his likes to harm this land’. He asserts that according to Saudi
documents, al-Faqih is linked to Zionist organisations that continue to
campaign against Saudi Arabia – without, of course, presenting his
readers with the evidence.60 This opinion echoes Crown Prince
Abdullah’s statement after violence erupted in the industrial city of
Yanbo in 2003, as a result of which several Westerners died. The crown
prince described the violence as a Zionist conspiracy. It is ironic that in
official Saudi discourse someone can be both an al-Qaida agent and part
of a Zionist conspiracy against the heartland of Islam. Another Saudi
author claims that al-Faqih positions himself as the al-Qaida spokesman
in London,61 a reference to the fact that al-Faqih is occasionally sought by
Western media to give comments on current al-Qaida violence and
Osama bin Laden.
Obviously al-Faqih does not publicly call for violent acts in pursuit
of the overthrow of the Saudi regime, nor does he openly praise or
242 Contesting the Saudi State

glorify Jihadi violence against government buildings, Western residen-

tial compounds and innocent civilians. Callers who praise Jihadis or
express support for Jihadi violence on PTV Radio station are immedi-
ately cut off. He occasionally criticises Jihadis for their ‘literal’ interpre-
tation of religious texts, choice of targets and lack of a coherent political
programme. On several occasions, he told his audience that Jihadis
‘excel’ in opposing foreign Western domination. They have a well-
developed anti-Western rhetoric, but lack a complete political pro-
gramme. At this juncture, he presents MIRA’s programme as an
alternative comprehensive blueprint for the transformation of Saudi
politics and society. He positions it as the only possible alternative after
the regime rejected calls for constitutional monarchy and imprisoned
the main advocates. He calls for the deployment of peaceful means in
the realisation of this goal.
In his commentaries on al-Qaida and Jihadi violence, al-Faqih posi-
tions himself as someone who adopts an analytical view. On several occa-
sions, Western media (including the BBC, CNN, PBS and others) sought
his comments on suicide bombers and violence, not only in Saudi Arabia
but elsewhere. His analysis blames the Saudi regime and its policies for
the eruption of violence. He also considers US Middle East policy to be
part of the causes of terrorism. He unequivocally rejects the connection,
made by the USA, Western scholars and Saudi liberals, between the
Saudi religious curriculum, which draws on Wahhabi interpretations, and
terrorism. He takes the view that the policies of the Saudi government,
especially its unconditional alliance with the West, is at the heart of Jihadi
violence. Furthermore, the USA, together with other Western countries,
fuel this violence as a result of their foreign policy. He points to the role
played by the Bush administration in giving Jihadis reasons to ‘hate
America’, not only in Palestine but also in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Following the 7 July London bombings, he wrote in the Guardian that
restricting the freedom of Muslims in the UK and introducing new anti-
terrorism legislations such as the British government package under dis-
cussion in September 2005 represent a victory for Osama bin Laden. Bin
Laden longs for the creation of a rift between European governments and
their resident Muslim minorities in order to give credibility to his anti-
Western discourse, according to al-Faqih.62 He argues that Bin Laden
forced Western governments to abandon justice and freedom for the sake
of security, elements which historically allowed the West to enjoy
supremacy and domination.
What concerns us here is how al-Faqih’s project reflects yet another
attempt at searching for the unmediated word of God. His description
of the type of ‘religion’ that evolved in Saudi Arabia is revealing.
Searching for the unmediated word of God 243

He broadcast his ‘caricature’ evaluation of official Wahhabiyya in

August 2005:
They [official religious scholars] share with Shiis the way they revere their reli-
gious scholars. They consider them infallible. They share with Sufis their infatua-
tion with the tariqa sheikh. They share with the Kharijites their willingness to
describe their opponents as kafirs. They share with the Murjia their suspension of
the duty to command virtue and prohibit vice when it comes to rulers. They
refuse to criticise the rulers’ bad deeds. They no longer refer to the Quran and
Sunna. They always refer to what Ibn Baz and Ibn al-Uthaymin say. The words of
the ulama cannot be used as evidence. When confronted with a problem, we
should not say ‘qal ibn Baz’ [ibn Baz said], we must return to the Book and the
tradition of the Prophet.63

In his reflections on Salafiyya, al-Faqih argues that there are several

meanings and usages. For the purpose of an article he wrote on Salafiyya
and democracy, he argues that there are several groups claiming to be
Salafis. First there are those who use it to imply that so and so is a radical
or extremist. Second, there are those who use it to indicate that a group
rejects madhhabiyya fiqhiyya (schools of jurisprudence). Third, there are
those who use it to refer to political Islamist movements like the ones in
Kuwait and Jordan. For al-Faqih, ‘Salafiyya describes those who claim to
respect sharia evidence and promise to follow the methodology of the
pious ancestors. Some groups and intellectuals use Salafiyya as a slogan
but when it comes to practice, we discover they are not authentic Salafis.
One must consider the evidence.’64 Like other Salafis, al-Faqih is engaged
in the debate about who is a Salafi.
Al-Faqih argues that under Saudi authority, the ulama lost their auton-
omy. They became a rubber stamp to royal decisions. His daily radio
show, together with the internet discussion board, are arenas for contest-
ing the authority of the official ulama, and even ridiculing their fatwas.
The most scathing attack is always initiated by anonymous contributors
who call official ulama ‘umala’ (traitors). Al-Faqih’s position vis-à-vis
the ulama is similar to that of a whole range of Saudi activists, intellectu-
als and non-official ulama (both Sahwis and Jihadis). In contrast with the
liberal position that aspires towards less ulama intervention (official or
otherwise) in the public sphere, and more liberal religious interpretations
in the social sphere (for example, issues related to women), al-Faqih calls
for greater role being granted to those familiar with sharia evidence. For
their opinion to count, they must have a degree of autonomy vis-à-vis
political authority. Al-Faqih does not reject the ulama altogether. He
calls for a greater involvement by what he calls independent ulama.
According to al-Faqih, the ulama should be outside the state apparatus
altogether. They should derive their authority from their social base, and
244 Contesting the Saudi State

should organise themselves as they consider appropriate, without state

While al-Faqih respects the early Wahhabi discourse of the eighteenth
century and a selected chain of ulama, he considers later ulama as people
who corrupted the tradition. In his opinion, the first Saudi state exempli-
fied the power of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in creating the Muslim
polity rather than the power of the Al-Saud, an understanding that in
his opinion current Saudi propaganda and educational programmes
reversed.65 He argues that the first and second Saudi states were more
faithful to their religious discourse than the third state. However, the con-
tribution of early ulama in the past two states is often not given enough
credit in Saudi official narratives. These glorify the role of the Al-Saud in
creating unity and prosperity, an approach that tends to belittle the con-
tribution of the Wahhabi movement. If ever there is a recognition, it is
usually expressed in terms of ‘partnership’. Al-Faqih emphasises that
‘there were several swords in Arabia in the past; none of these swords suc-
ceeded. Only the one that had the blessing of religion succeeded.’66 His
reflections on history lead him to argue that the primary force behind the
establishment of the early Saudi state was the reformer: without him there
would not have been an impulse for unification. Al-Faqih may have reser-
vations on Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab granting the Al-Saud an oath
of allegiance that was extended to their descendants, but he does not
tackle this issue publicly. It is difficult to ascertain whether this is a politi-
cal strategy or a reflection of a deep conviction. He may feel that as a polit-
ical movement, MIRA should not be entangled in a theological debate
that would diminish its popularity among a constituency that is perhaps
not yet ready for such intellectual overtures. Yet al-Faqih strongly argues
against the legitimacy of hereditary leadership, which Ibn Abd al-Wahhab
was known to have granted and legitimised for the Al-Saudi family. Al-
Faqih avoids discussing religious matters that are divisive, or favouring
one fiqh opinion over another. When a woman caller to Debate, later
PTV, Radio criticised those ulama who consider zawaj al-misyar (secret
visiting marriage)67 permissible, he immediately pointed her attention to
the fact that this matter is subject to religious debate and is not central to
MIRA’s programme. He adopts a similar view regarding women driving,
covering their faces, and occupying position of authority. While he
accepts that driving and covering the face are subject to different religious
opinions, he unequivocally rejects women being put in a position of
wilaya ama, (leadership), for example as president or minister. He claims
that there is ulama consensus over excluding women from wilya ama.
Other religious scholars have a different opinion on the question. In
general, his position on gender issues is derived, according to him, from
Searching for the unmediated word of God 245

the book and the Prophet’s tradition. Both men and women are inter-
preters of this heritage, according to al-Faqih.
When it comes to the contemporary state established by Abdulaziz ibn
Saud in 1932, al-Faqih seems to be liberated from all constraints. He con-
siders the third state to be the evil empire par excellence. However, he
acknowledges that King Abdulaziz had personal leadership qualities such
as intelligence, perseverance and charisma. For a whole week in 2004, he
bombarded Debate Radio listeners with an understanding of the past that
challenges the official narratives enforcing Saudi legitimacy. He invited
his listeners to contribute their own reflections and oral narratives that
‘put the record straight’. His audience excelled in offering an alternative
historical memory that has been suppressed for so long. People from
various regions and towns, belonging to tribal and non-tribal groups,
descendants of the 1920s suppressed Ikhwan rebellion, representatives of
sedentary families in Hijaz, Najd and the Eastern Province all joined in a
chorus condemning the ‘historical forgery’ that the regime maintained.
Old and young men and women retold the past. They broke the silence
over ‘massacres’, ‘torture’, ‘treachery’ and ‘hypocrisy’. While al-Faqih
offered his own version of the past, he gave others the opportunity to
imagine and articulate a different, so far untold, history. In a manner rem-
iniscent of anonymous internet discussion boards, Saudis added their dis-
sident voices to the written word that is yet to be claimed by identifiable
men and women. While Saudis searched for the word of God that is not
mediated by co-opted ulama, they longed for a past that is equally free
from the domination of the regime and its historians. If official media
channels are platforms for creating consenting subjects, Debate Radio
exemplified the ‘opposite direction’. It is the voice of dissent and contes-
tation. The majority of participants still hold on to their creative noms de
plume, often carefully chosen to reflect whole range of positions: the
‘Jihadi Den’ is a rebellious woman; the ‘Bare footed’ is an impoverished
man; the ‘Lion’ is a defiant man; the ‘Stranger at home’ is a man exiled in
his own country; the ‘ex-Saudi’ is someone who liberated himself from
‘Saudi’ identity. Callers are creative in choosing symbolic names to
convey a whole range of meanings including defiance, alienation, rejec-
tion, piety and determination. They, continue to be followed by security
forces, however. Several raids on groups of young men who had assem-
bled for dinner after having called Debate Radio in 2004 resulted in
arrests, the details of which were broadcast on air during the security
force raids.68
In addition to communicating MIRA’s political programme, Debate
Radio offers a platform for attacking the royal family, the official ulama,
co-opted Sahwis and liberals. It allows the dissemination of MIRA’s
246 Contesting the Saudi State

all-encompassing reform and commentaries on current affairs. As

MIRA’s political programme is discussed elsewhere,69 it is important to
focus here on more recent trends that emerged with its acquisition of a
media communication channel in 2003.
Al-Faqih’s daily radio programme offers a wide range of topics and
commentaries on past and present affairs. Sometimes he proposes alter-
native interpretations of economic, political and social issues. On one
occasion, tribalism and tribal identity were discussed in ways that
mobilised people by drawing on their tribal honour. In al-Faqih’s
opinion, Islam is not against tribalism as such; it is against racism. He told
his audience that the Prophet called upon the tribes of Arabia to compete
in defending faith rather than in fostering superiority and racism. Al-
Faqih called upon the various tribes of Arabia to fulfil the Prophetic tradi-
tion and demonstrate their commitment to reform by sending in their
names as individuals in support of MIRA. This was called a communal
electronic demonstration, and preceded his call for real demonstrations
in 2004. As al-Faqih mobilised people by appealing to their tribal iden-
tity, he emphasised equality in Islam. However, by addressing Saudis as
individuals belonging to tribes rather than as Saudi citizens, he incurred
the wrath of several groups. The government, together with liberals and
Sahwis, accused him of playing on old tribal rivalries and ancient feuds.
His ex-comrade Muhsin al-Awajy wrote a scathing attack in which he
accused al-Faqih of ‘sinking the ship rather than reforming it’.70 Given
the ferocity of al-Awajy’s attack, it seems that al-Faqih touched a very raw
nerve among government officials, who may have authorised al-Awajy’s
attack. Al-Faqih’s response emphasised that Islam did not destroy tribal
identities, but mobilised them for the public good. Invoking tribal honour
on the basis of an Islamic interpretation for the purpose of political mobil-
isation is in sharp contrast with official Saudi narratives that demonise
tribal allegiance and call upon people to offer their loyalty to the king.
Tribes are only allowed to boast about their allegiance to the Al-Saud
through the mobilisation of their own members. This is usually done in
the context of Nabati poetry, recited in heritage festivals and addressed to
the king and other princes. Al-Faqih’s mobilisation is, however, very
much dependent on whether tribes can be politically motivated after
decades of urbanisation, migration to cities and systematic government
attempts to undermine tribal economy and leadership. There is no doubt
that tribalism as an identity is still prominent in Saudi Arabia, evidence of
which is the enthusiasm expressed by many callers to Debate Radio, who
highlighted their tribal identity and put it at the service of MIRA’s pro-
gramme. It is very difficult, however, to predict whether the rhetoric of
tribalism and honour will eventually lead to real mobilisation. So far this
Searching for the unmediated word of God 247

does not seem to be the case. In twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia, tribes

and even families are divided and polarised.
One of the novelties of MIRA’s radio channel stems from its ability to
question dominant understandings of gender relations. While this chal-
lenge should not be understood as leading to Western-style feminist
awareness, it is definitely an attempt to offer alternative interpretations of
gender, but from within the Islamic tradition. Al-Faqih does not call for
‘gender equality’ as understood in the West. However, he promotes what
might be considered as gender complementarity, whereby men and
women play complementary roles as specified and defined by sharia. Al-
Faqih announces that the problem in Saudi Arabia stems from confusing
sharia with social tradition. The official ulama use restrictions on women
in an attempt to increase their legitimacy, but in fact they are not capable
of separating social practice from the Islamic tradition. Only a free
medium for debate and discussion will overcome this problem. He gives
the example of women driving, a case where the confusion between social
tradition and sharia evidence is clearly demonstrated. While he calls for
the creation of more jobs for women and more state benefits for disadvan-
taged divorcées, widows and spinsters, his proposals fall short of calling
for women to occupy positions of leadership, except in areas related to
women. Reforming gender relations invokes a paternalistic and protective
approach. Women are seen as al-unsor al-daif (the weak element), who
need protection from men and the unjust state. According to al-Faqih,
neither men nor women decide on women’s rights. The final judgement is
the Quran and the tradition of the Prophet.
In a move meant to refute the criticism of his opponents, especially
those Saudi liberals who accuse him of aspiring towards a Taliban-style
government, al-Faqih allowed and encouraged the participation of
islahiyyat (female reformers) in Debate Radio. Islahiyyat proved to be
different from the increasing number of daiyyat (preachers), who by and
large endorse the Sahwi discourse and its political position vis-à-vis the
regime.71 Islahiyyat, like other MIRA supporters, reject the regime and
hold it responsible for the ‘misery’ of women in Saudi Arabia. Sahwi
daiyyat usually blame society and its misguided Islam for the current
exclusion of women. Their preaching is primarily concerned with Islamic
dress and worship. So far they have not demonstrated an engagement
with current political affairs or articulated a vision of reform. Sahwi
daiyyat often assert that the problem lies in the tribal patriarchal system
rather than political oppression or Islam. Suhaylah Hammad Zayn al-
Abdin is such a daiyya, who is very close to the government agenda.
MIRA’s islahiyyat, however, are beginning to articulate an alternative
vision that establishes the connection between the status of women and
248 Contesting the Saudi State

political oppression. Most MIRA islahiyyat are not specifically concerned

with issues relevant to women but offer a wide range of opinion on poli-
tics, society, the economy and foreign relations.
Women are given a platform to present their views, analyse the current
situation and, more importantly, mobilise men by appealing to their
Islamic, tribal and masculine honour, described as being regularly vio-
lated by the state and its agents. In October 2003 al-Faqih went as far as
calling upon women to participate in the Riyadh demonstration, provided
that they were veiled and protected by groups of men. He was accused by
co-opted Sahwis of hiding behind a female shield (tatarus bi l-nisa), an
act of cowardice. He encouraged women, together with men, to attend
regular Friday prayers in specific mosques designated by the movement
in an attempt to create a critical mass in such mosques without incurring
state repression. This was regarded as a first step towards creating a
defiant group of islahiyyin and islahiyyat without being identified by state
security agents. Al-Faqih publicised the plight of Umm Saud, whose son
burnt to death in al-Hayer prison, and Ghayda al-Sharif, who was
allegedly subjected to humiliation by the Saudi intelligence services fol-
lowing the arrest of her husband. The celebration of the lives and courage
of these two women and several others contributes to the creation of
images of female heroines who were so ‘daring in speaking truth to
power’. Their experiences are regularly remembered in prose and poetry.
In general, islahiyyat have proved to be articulate and thoughtful. They
not only discuss issues relevant to women, but also men. On various occa-
sion, I participated in the debate and generated a wide range of responses
from both men and women. The majority are young schoolteachers, stu-
dents in higher education or housewives who have a good level of literacy
and general awareness. They prepare presentations in advance; some
speak in classical Arabic, others use colloquial language and powerful
poetry. The mood is always defiant and confrontational. They draw on
the Islamic tradition to challenge the domination of the royal family and
its ulama. More importantly, they search for religious interpretations that
are not mediated by royal authority or state ulama. They discuss the
plight of women who are abandoned by their husbands and the state,
such as widows, divorcées, spinsters and all those marginalised in Saudi
society. They argue that jobs for people are not a matter of luxury; but a
means of survival. They emphasise that the state must create jobs for
women that respect sex segregation and Islamic tradition. One woman
called for the state to employ women in the judiciary as assistants and
counsellors in order to create a comfortable space for other women in an
otherwise all-male forum. The islahiyyat want to break the chain of sub-
servience, they want women to be treated as people with full rights and
Searching for the unmediated word of God 249

responsibilities, derived according to their vision of Islam. While they

reject Western-style feminist discourse, they search for an ‘authentic’
Islamic alternative.
They denounce the state for forcing female teachers to travel long dis-
tances to remote schools, or even schools in other cities. They claim that
this is a strategy to break up the family. The regime forces people to be so
preoccupied with the details of living that they forget the real problem –
oppression and corruption, according to one islahiyya. While islahiyyat
call for respect and equality, they draw on sharia evidence and the tradi-
tion of the Prophet to promote a vision whereby women play an impor-
tant role in society. They emphasise the connection between the
marginalisation of women and political oppression. When a member of
the Consultative Council, Muhammad al-Zulfa, called upon the council
to debate women driving in 2005, an opinion poll on the MIRA website
indicated that most participants (approximately 60 per cent) would
support allowing women to drive only if the Al-Saud cease to rule the
country, itself an interesting result. In this opinion poll, women’s driving
is conditional not on sharia evidence or social tradition, but on the over-
throw of the Saudi regime. This demonstrates that gender issues in Saudi
Arabia are truly a political rather than a sharia or social concern. As the
Saudi regime is seen as ‘morally corrupt’, opposition groups emphasise
piety and moral superiority. Women are central to this vision.
The participation of women in MIRA forums (internet and radio)
reflects the state of frustration experienced by Saudi women in general.
MIRA’s islahiyyat denounce state-initiated reforms, for example employ-
ing women in Saudia Airlines, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other
envisaged sectors. They reject state-sponsored reforms in the area of
gender relations: often such initiatives are interpreted as a conspiracy to
normalise moral corruption and degeneration. They interpret state initia-
tives as attempts to ‘corrupt’ women and destroy the piety of society.
They are very critical of entertainment satellite channels owned by Saudi
princes – for example, al-Walid ibn Talal’s Rotana music channel.
Islahiyyat stretch the debate on gender, yet it is important to emphasise
that they do not offer a radical programme outside the Islamic tradition.
As in other Muslim countries – for example, Egypt and Iran – Saudi
islahiyyat reflect personal attempts to articulate an Islamic feminism that
draws on early Muslim tradition, especially the Prophet’s biography and
that of early female companions of the Prophet (sahabiyyat), to reformu-
late solutions for modern and contemporary problems. They denounce
traditional ulama for concentrating on interpretations that deal with
women’s issues such as menstruation and ablution while excluding the
general plight of women in Saudi society. They call such ulama mashaykh
250 Contesting the Saudi State

al-haydh, ‘the sheikhs of menstruation’, a reference to their numerous

fatwas in this area. In this Islamic feminism, there is no role for state-
sponsored social reforms. Most islahiyyat consider the state an agent of
corruption rather than reform, and as a violator of women’s honour rather
than its protector. Examples of raids on private homes, the arrests of sons
and brothers and even women themselves, provide ample evidence of this
violation. According to many islahiyyat, the Saudi leadership exploits
women after impoverishing them and depriving them of their rights. They
say that it has failed to provide either economic or physical security for
women, either on the streets or inside the confines of the household. They
call for women’s employment, as they see it as a strategy for survival for
many women. Some islahiyyat reject the concept of wali al-amr, for
example fathers, brothers or sons who act as guardians of women. They
want to be treated as legal persons who represent themselves rather than
as minors who need to be represented by others, a position that not only
challenges parental authority but also political extensions of this personal
and familial relationship.
It is important to compare their position with that of other categories of
women in Saudi society. Some Saudi women regard the royal family as
their main protector against the forces of backwardness, by which they
often mean the official religious establishment that so far has denounced
calls for social change. They have hopes that enlightened members of the
royal family, together with moderate Muslim scholars, will crush religious
opposition and initiate reforms in the area of gender. As mentioned
earlier in this book, the religious establishment controls the social sphere
as it is the only area left under its jurisdiction, so their hold over this last
precious area of control may not evaporate very easily. Selected profes-
sional women, academics and writers were involved in presenting a peti-
tion to the royal family calling for greater freedom and recognition, in
addition to signing other general reform petitions.72 In September 2005
King Abdullah received a group of Saudi businesswomen, academics and
writers to discuss matters related to the status of women in general. The
discussion remained enshrined in secrecy, perhaps for fear of antagonis-
ing traditional elements in Saudi society. The controversy caused by the
participation of a famous businesswoman whose veil was not tight
enough – it occasionally slipped – in the Jiddah Economic Forum in 2004
was perhaps a factor in keeping the king’s discussion with women behind
closed doors.
MIRA’s islahiyyat follow the news of such encounters and offer their
own interpretations of the situation. In general, they regard the female sig-
natories of petitions and those who met with the king as unrepresentative
of Saudi women and as co-opted groups that the state uses to polish its
Searching for the unmediated word of God 251

image abroad. In the words of one distinguished islahiyya, ‘the issue for me
is not whether I will be allowed to drive but whether I will be able to afford
a car’.73 Women who belong to the business elite and who inherited the
management of family financial companies, together with female profes-
sionals and writers, may not constitute a representative sample of Saudi
women, the majority of whom remain marginalised and underprivileged.
Like other groups in Saudi society, MIRA constantly searches for
uncensored spaces. If its communication arm, PTV Radio, continues
without government interference, it may develop into a substantial voice.
This will depend on whether al-Faqih continues to receive funds for his
various activities, and on whether the British government resists Saudi or
American pressure to deport him.74 Developments inside Saudi Arabia
may also influence the future of MIRA. Increased Jihadi violence,
together with failure of King Abdullah to act upon at least some of the
political reform agenda demanded in the various aforementioned peti-
tions, may create a window of opportunity for MIRA.
It remains to be seen whether MIRA will be able to recruit supporters
from influential groups across Saudi Arabia, such as professionals, intel-
lectuals and foot-soldiers drawn from the various regions. Its headquar-
ters in London is manned by a Ghamdi, a descendant of the Hijazi
al-Ashraf (Abdulaziz al-Shanbari), an Otaybi, in addition to al-Faqih who
claims decent from Banu Tamim. In December 2005 al-Shanbari
declared that he had defected from MIRA and returned to Saudi Arabia.
In March 2006 he appeared on al-Arabiyya Saudi satellite channel,
denouncing MIRA and its director, while glorifying King Abdullah. One
cannot rule out the possibility that the regime exerted pressure on al-
Shanbari to denounce al-Faqih and accuse him of working for the intelli-
gence services of Libya, Iran, Britain and another unnamed Gulf state,
possibly Qatar. Such accusations must be understood in the context of
Saudi efforts to discredit al-Faqih, one of the remaining unco-opted dissi-
dents abroad. Al-Shanbari claimed that al-Faqih was Iraqi until the age of
seventeen, a reference to the fact that al-Faqih grew up in al-Zobayr, a
Sunni town in southern Iraq that has been host to several waves of Najdi
migrants for the last three hundred years.
No doubt other MIRA supporters remain behind the scenes. Lists of
people who have offered their allegiance indicate that a cross-section of
Saudi society responded to al-Faqih’s electronic support demonstration
in 2004. It is difficult to asses the magnitude of MIRA in the present
context of repression. Identification with MIRA, contact with or partici-
pation in its daily radio programme remain crimes punishable by arrest.
So far liberals see MIRA as a dissident political movement that draws
on strict Wahhabi interpretations. They accuse it of aspiring towards
252 Contesting the Saudi State

establishing a Taliban-style regime in Saudi Arabia. Al-Faqih’s views on

gender issues and the fact that women participated not only in Debate
Radio but also in the October 2003 demonstrations did little to dispel
these accusations. Al-Faqih boasts that his Salafi orientation did not
prevent him from using the latest communication technology to spread
his message, proof of his endorsement of modernity. While using modern
technology is not the same as being modern, it attests to the fact that this
Salafi opposition is a product of modernity rather than a movement
against it. Modernity for MIRA is defined according to its own terms,
itself a proof of the possibility of multiple modernities.
When confronted with liberal accusations, al-Faqih argues that there
are three categories of liberals in Saudi Arabia. First, there are those who
theorise liberalism and believe in political liberties as defined in the
Western tradition. He claims that he respects those people because they
are consistent and tend to be critical of the royal family. These diehard
liberals are almost extinct in Saudi society, according to al-Faqih. The
second group is very hypocritical and subservient to the royal family
despite their liberal tendencies. They only promote the social aspect of
liberalism, as they call for the adoption of Western lifestyles but defend
Saudi authoritarianism, justify dictatorship, absence of accountability
and secrecy in politics. Those so-called liberals tend to be dominant in
Saudi-owned media and government bureaucracies. He says he has no
respect for such people. The third group consists of those who support
MIRA but have ‘overstretched’ liberal social programmes. Such people
are mistakenly classified as liberals because of bias in Saudi society
against those who do not exhibit clear signs of religiosity. According to al-
Faqih, they are in fact islahiyyin, who need a gentle approach in order to
include them in MIRA’s project.
Traditional ulama and outspoken Sahwis attacked MIRA on various
occasions. Some Jihadis openly praise MIRA and its director. Others have
reservations regarding MIRA’s self-proclaimed peaceful strategy to over-
throw the regime. Some Debate Radio callers are occasionally impatient
with peaceful demonstrations or communal prayers as a political strategy.
On several occasions al-Faqih cut their participation in the programme
for praising violence. Most MIRA supporters seem to be frustrated with
the fact that they cannot get to meet each other for fear of the intelligence
services and oppression by the regime.
Will MIRA attract Jihadis who may have given up violence after the
serious bloody confrontations with the regime? Such a question cannot
be answered at the moment. However, it seems that by 2005, MIRA’s
message resonated among the unemployed and the marginalised in
peripheral regions and low-income neighbourhoods. It is clear that
Searching for the unmediated word of God 253

MIRA attracts several marginalised Hijazis, Asiris and members of the

northern tribes. It may have the support of wealthy and influential
members but they are not visible for obvious reasons. It remains to be
seen whether MIRA through its daily broadcast can transform those
atomised, disenfranchised, and marginalised young men and women into
organised clandestine political activists who will in the future pose a
threat to the regime. Regular demonstrations and civil disobedience may
embarrass the government at a time when it may not be able, in the age
of increasing exposure and globalised communication, to use force
indiscriminately against peaceful, unarmed demonstrators. Any bloody
confrontation with peaceful demonstrators would have serious repercus-
sions, both internally and externally. While the government does not feel
it needs to justify violence against armed Jihadis, it is unlikely that it will
be able to excuse the use of violence against peaceful civilians.
Publications, political activism, internet discussion boards and live
radio provide Saudis with unmediated spaces where they articulate a con-
stant preoccupation with freeing themselves from the domination of
state-approved interpretations of history, theology and politics. So far
their debates have not crystallised around strong independent institutions
and organisations, as these are banned, yet the anonymity and informality
of the spaces various voices occupy provide alternative visions that are
threatening to the regime. Such voices challenge the main pillars of
authoritarianism, mainly the consenting narratives that draw on sacred
religious tradition, thereby granting holiness sanctioned by texts and their
interpreters to this authoritarianism. While direct repression is regularly
practised, the regime censors books, jams radio stations and controls the
internet.75 The imprisonment of the constitutional reformers and regular
reports on the abuse of human rights remain an embarrassment. Yet there
is no doubt that the process of undermining authoritarian rule has
already begun. It is difficult to bring it to a halt. The search for the
unmediated word of God may eventually lead to the dismantling of
authoritarian rule.

Literature on Saudi Arabia often starts by making the obvious observa-

tion that the regime derives its legitimacy from Wahhabiyya. Yet not many
studies go further than this, for example to analyse the internal dynamics
and dialectics of this legitimacy. In this book I have explored the ways in
which Wahhabiyya became a hegemonic discourse under the patronage
of the state. Rather than being a tradition opposed to modernity,
Wahhabiyya flourished and its advocates became prosperous as a result of
the immersion of Saudi Arabia in modernity. Wahhabiyya became a dom-
inant discourse because of state patronage, oil and modernity. However,
the same factors that consolidated it have led to its contestation. This has
resulted in the emergence of multiple Wahhabi discourses, all con-
structed against the background of state control.
The creation of the modern state in 1932 consolidated a religious tradi-
tion that grew in the shadow of the sultan. After the state eliminated
undesirable elements and interpretations in the 1920s, Wahhabiyya
became the dominant religious discourse, whose consolidation was
dependent on financial and moral support from the political elite.
Wahhabi scholars developed into a class of noblesse détat with its own
interests and role in the political realm. This elite originated in the small
oases and settlements of southern Najd and Qasim that produced reli-
gious interpreters. Until the 1970s aimat al-dawa al-najdiyya represented
a close circle of people of knowledge. Against the universal claims of
Wahhabiyya, mainly its assertion that it represented the authentic Sunni
tradition, it remained anchored in one geographical region and propa-
gated by people with clear regional genealogical connections.
Three important concepts, deeply grounded in the religious tradition,
were deployed in supporting the project of state expansion. Relying on
the tradition of the founding father, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the
Wahhabi ulama promoted migration, excommunication and jihad to
consolidate the political realm. All three concepts were conducive to
political centralisation and domination. Interpretations of migration
marked a physical boundary between the realm of blasphemy and the
Conclusion 255

land of piety. It became compulsory for the Arabian population to

abandon its own ‘region of blasphemy’ in favour of that of piety. The
political realm was consolidated as a result of fear of death in the land of
debauchery and associationist practices. To seek salvation one had to
migrate to territories under the political authority of the Al-Saud and the
religious authority of the Wahhabi ulama. Similarly, excommunication of
other Muslims who lived in blasphemous places became another mecha-
nism that consolidated the realm. Early twentieth-century Wahhabi
ulama reinvoked the tradition of their eighteenth-century founder, who
sent letters to faraway communities outlining their degeneration and reli-
gious bankruptcy. Those who did not voluntarily move to the land of
piety had to be fought in their own territories to bring them back to Islam.
Re-Islamising society and individual salvation were dependent on sub-
mission to the rightful Imam – the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn
Saud. Those who hesitated over the exodus to piety were subjected to
jihad, a duty anchored in sacred texts. After the activation of the three
concepts, the state was proclaimed in 1932. Wahhabi discourse was suc-
cessful in mystifying the world for the sake of power.
With the advent of oil in the second half of the twentieth century, the
regime shared the booty with its most loyal religious scholars, now
serving as judges, jurists, teachers and preachers to an increasing number
of Saudis. For a brief period, the Riyadh-based religious study circles of
famous Wahhabi ulama became the Mecca for new recruits and converts.
They initially came from Qasim, Hasa and northern Najd, and later from
Hijaz, Asir, the northern and eastern provinces. In a third phase, students
seeking religious knowledge came from not only the Muslim world but
also from among Muslim minorities in the West.1 Most of the novices
returned to their countries to preach a new faith, acquired in the heart-
land of Islam, under the patronage of the so-called monotheist state.
It was not long before the oil revenues were able to fund the foundation
of modern religious study centres. From the 1960s schools and universi-
ties were set up across the country. Initially the staff arrived from other
countries in the Arab world, especially those that produced an excess of
religious educators who could not be absorbed locally or were expelled
from these countries by revolutionary Arab secular regimes. Saudi Arabia
adopted an open-door policy as it expanded its religious educational
bureaucracy. The new recruits were seen as a shield against the revolu-
tionary rhetoric of these Arab regimes. All were controlled and supervised
by the local Wahhabi circle. Such religious educators acted on Saudi
society but also reacted to the system of control already in place. They
influenced and were influenced by local Saudi Wahhabi interpretations.
All benefited from the oil boom of the 1970s.
256 Contesting the Saudi State

Oil revenues allowed the regime to expand and purchase the latest
innovations of Western modernity. Technology and easy travel facilitated
the consolidation of Wahhabi discourse and widened the circle of
recruits. As more Saudis entered schools and universities, many chose
religious careers. The rest were inexorably exposed to religious interpre-
tations in a systematic way. Schools, universities, radio, television, public
lectures, private study circles and the media played a crucial role. After a
near-monopoly over religious interpretations by the Najdi circle, recruit-
ment and dissemination was expanded. The regime succeeded in enforc-
ing the appearances of religiosity while politics was moving away from the
control of religion and the religious.
The proliferation of Wahhabiyya produced consenting subjects, who,
as I argued in the first chapter, internalised specific interpretations of
sacred religious texts calling upon true believers to submit to the will of
rulers, respect their wisdom and revere their policies. These interpreta-
tions rendered public calls for reform, political participation and even
open discussion of public affairs akin to blasphemy. While not invented
by Wahhabi ulama – they had a history rooted in certain interpretations
within Sunni Islam – they were reinvented, reconstructed and widely
The regime did not need to use excessive force, although it occasionally
found that it had to resort to harsh measures. Under its patronage,
Wahhabi ulama propagated interpretations that equated obeying rulers
with obeying God. If a Saudi criticised the leadership, he committed a sin,
violated God’s orders and challenged divine wisdom. Obedience must be
extended to a group of wulat al-amr, an ambiguous large circle, under-
stood to include princes and religious scholars. Official Wahhabiyya
required complete submission to the wisdom of the umara and ulama, as
represented in Ibn Baz’s interpretations of Quranic verses.
The discourse of consent was internalised by several generations of
Saudis. With modernity, state schools, universities, mosques, the media
and all communication technology propagated the discourse of acquies-
cence. This is not to say that Saudis consented because they were simply
bribed by the ‘rentier state’, with its redistributive system that exchanges
welfare for loyalty and submission. Although the regime did its best to
buy loyalty, reward or promise to reward obedience and patronise social
groups, there were more subtle forms of domination and submission. The
manufacture of consenting subjects needed more than oil to lubricate an
everlasting acquiescence. Wahhabi religio-political discourse preceded
oil. It not only sanctified authoritarian rule, it provided shared meanings
that tied people to a particular political configuration. Wahhabiyya suc-
ceeded in Islamising Saudi authoritarianism rather than society.
Conclusion 257

Saudi authoritarianism developed in the twentieth century because

it was able to capitalise on a master narrative, the sum total of religio-
political interpretations that assumed sanctity. When such discourse was
not there or was less developed, Wahhabi ulama invented it for the sake of
power. For more than seventy years, those who propagated this discourse
were an elite class, above ordinary human evaluation and assessment.
This authoritarianism was governed by highly structured sequences, nar-
ratives and rituals enacted at certain places and times. The religious dis-
course linked the present to the past, and present to future. As in colonial
contexts, political order was to be achieved not through the intermittent
use of coercion but through continuous instructions, inspection and
control.2 Saudi–Wahhabi religious discourse created consenting political
subjects. It established links between divinely received wisdom and reli-
gious and political authority.
A product of state control and modernity, Saudi religio-political
discourse proliferated, fragmented and challenged state authority.
Unexpectedly, control under authoritarian rule produced the seeds of
mutation. Wahhabiyya developed interpretations that challenged the dis-
course of control. As official Wahhabiyya enchanted society, rendering it
more religious, and dis-enchanted politics, loud and critical voices
emerged among those who had been brought up on its teachings. The
Sahwis, mainly a product of Wahhabi education and modernity as experi-
enced in universities, challenged official Wahhabi religio-political dis-
course as they called upon people to re-enchant politics. Sahwis
contested the acquiescent discourse, a move that led inevitably to con-
frontation with the regime in the 1990s. While most Sahwi rhetoric was a
response to what Sahwis defined as Western domination, they made link-
ages, subtle and not so subtle, between their local regime and Western
domination. After brief periods of imprisonment, followed by a changing
world situation after 11 September and a wave of violence inside the
country, Sahwis were put on the defensive. They became the ‘accused’. In
order to defend their position, they tried two simultaneous strategies.
They moderated and even stopped their criticism of the government,
while a small minority endeavoured to mediate and negotiate with those
defined as having ‘gone astray’, the Jihadis. Sahwis remain restless in
Saudi Arabia despite regime’s efforts to incorporate them and enlist them
in its effort to combat terrorism. In the post-11 September period, Sahwis
defended the regime and condemned Jihadis for their ignorance. They
called upon Jihadis to give themselves up so that they could be rehabili-
tated and re-educated in the ‘right’ religious interpretations. Sahwis
today refrain from challenging the government but they continue to
attack the West, a safe position as long as they do not call openly for a
258 Contesting the Saudi State

perpetual jihad against infidels. They restrain their followers by arguing

that only in occupied territories, for example Palestine, Iraq and
Chechnya, is jihad permissible. Sahwi religious effervescence is now con-
centrated on the social sphere. Socially, Sahwis claim to defend the
authentic Islamic tradition while some figures, such as Salman al-Awdah,
have developed a moderate transnational religious discourse appropriate
for Arab satellite television viewers. Rather like the ageing religious estab-
lishment, Sahwis see themselves as defenders of the umma against cor-
rupting Western domination and cultural imperialism. Today they are a
‘church in waiting’.
Wahhabi discourse was prematurely transnationalised. The process
started vigorously in the 1970s and 1980s. Wahhabi interpretations trav-
elled to Afghanistan with the Jihadis. There it went through a process of
reinterpretation as it was exposed for the first time to open combat,
debate and competition. With the gates of jihad closed in Saudi Arabia
since 1932, young Saudis travelled to Afghanistan in pursuit of an hon-
ourable martyrdom.
In Afghanistan, free spaces emerged where Saudis experimented with
religious interpretation. Under the fog of war, a hybrid discourse empha-
sising rebellion against despotic rulers matured with Osama bin Laden’s
patronage and the influence of other Islamist Jihadi traditions. This dis-
course was not invented in Afghanistan. It arrived in Afghanistan with the
Saudi Afghans. Trying to identify whether Osama bin Laden is a Wahhabi
seems to me a futile exercise. What is clear is that his message went
further than official Wahhabi interpretations had ever been able to go.
While his message is rejected by many, it is endorsed and defended by a
few Saudis. His revolutionary rhetoric was developed and supported by
sharia evidence and the interpretations of the early Wahhabi scholars
themselves. The contestation of Saudi religious discourse coexisted with
official efforts to export the traditional, acquiescent interpretations. In
London official Saudi religious discourse arrived to educate in matters
related to worship and creed, but this education spawned interpretations
that had political consequences. Both the challenging political interpreta-
tions and the consenting literature on worship proved to be popular,
empowering discourses. This empowerment derives from complying with
rigid rules that regulate the body and relations with the other. Saudi dis-
course had moved from localism to transnationalism before developing a
sufficient level of sophistication suitable for an international Muslim
audience. This premature transnationalisation enabled its advocates to
develop its full revolutionary potential.
After 2001 debates on religious interpretations continued at home
with the outbreak of violence in major Saudi cities. Jihadis developed
Conclusion 259

rebellious interpretations and anchored these in the Wahhabi tradition.

They confronted both official ulama and Sahwis. They considered their
early mentors as people who betrayed the project and failed to carry it to
its logical conclusions. Jihadis did not import a new religious tradition.
They simply revisited Wahhabi interpretations. They invoked symbols
and meanings that resonate with society. In the style of an early genera-
tion of Wahhabi ulama, young Jihadi scholars assumed the role of
authentic guardians of the original message of Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab. The founder’s words and those of his disciples were crucial.
Jihadi activists used the internet to spread the message. This was the
beginning of the privatisation of jihad in the age of globalisation. After
each terrorist attack, Jihadis released statements and films celebrating the
life and death of martyrs. In the twenty-first century, jihad became a per-
formance with its own politics and poetics that draw on old meanings but
is delivered and disseminated using the latest communication technology.
Jihadi violence is not simply about challenging the regime and expelling
infidels from the Arabian Peninsula. It is concerned with battles over reli-
gious interpretation, cultural values, national identity and the position of
women. It emerges as a result of a modern orientation in which men feel
they can change the world by action. Jihadis combine a longing for a
return to the authentic tradition with ultra-modern concerns. Jihadi
rhetoric is very traditional, yet the messages reflect issues that are a
product of modernity. Jihadis are concerned with the question of loss of
identity, hardly an issue in traditional societies. Their messages tended to
be global, yet they are fully immersed in the politics of the locality. Such
messages flourish in contexts in which aspirations are suppressed, pro-
jects are diverted and comrades betrayed. They also blossom in contexts
where the gap between proclaimed official political discourse and reality
is extremely wide.
Saudi Jihadi discourse emerged in an authoritarian context. Low levels
of education, rising aspirations, economic deprivation, social marginali-
sation and suppressed dreams are the context rather than the cause.
While jihad is commonly interpreted as a struggle for the sake of God, it is
in fact a struggle over religious interpretation and identity at a time when
there are several competing discourses and multiple identities. Jihadis do
not seek to annihilate themselves because they are suffering alienation,
sexual frustration or anomie. It seems that they do so because they
strongly believe in their power and strength – both expressed in religious
idiom. They are aware of the fact that after their martyrdom, some would
hail them as heroes in the land of no heroes.
Through the life of one Saudi Salafi, Lewis Atiyat Allah, I traced the
competing lives and identities that this personality experienced and
260 Contesting the Saudi State

expressed. Lewis experimented with Sahwa, abandoned it in favour of

liberalism, then returned to Sahwa, only to be disappointed. He claims to
have found his salvation in Jihadism. It remains to be seen whether this is
Lewis’s final destination. I have my doubts.
This book highlighted the consequences of state efforts to domesticate
religion and its interpreters. The Al-Saud controlled religious interpreta-
tions that were carefully produced by a group of ulama. The latter took
control of the social sphere while leaving politics to the Al-Saud and their
advisers. The Al-Saud had no qualms with uncompromising religious
interpretations applied in the social sphere. The more the public arena
appeared to be ‘properly Islamised’, the more they are seen as pious
Muslim rulers – or at least this is what they hoped. The ulama played the
game according to the rules. They excelled in enforcing the outward
appearances of Islam while the regime conducted its policy on the basis of
pragmatism and survival, like any other government.
If ever the ulama interfered in the well-guarded realm of politics, it was
only to repeat interpretations that consolidated power and eliminated any
potential dissident voices. They interpreted peaceful dissidence as viola-
tion of Quranic verses that call upon the believers to obey God, the
Prophet and wali al-amr. The state itself created the conditions that
allowed mutations of the Wahhabi tradition. The more the state enforced
the ulama’s interpretations, the more this discourse proliferated. Those
who excommunicate the regime itself draw on early Wahhabi sources of
interpretation: when the state closed the gates of ijtihad (interpretation),
society (or more accurately sections of it) opened the gates of jihad. The
Saudi regime created the conditions for religiously motivated violence.
Today it is struggling to convince the world that it is a victim of this vio-
lence. At the same time, it is desperately trying to convince the West that it
is the only shield against this violence spreading more widely and claiming
many lives, both Muslim and non-Muslim. The Saudi regime resorts to its
old game. In Western contexts it demonises its own constituency for the
sake of projecting itself as the sole agent of modernity, prosperity and tol-
erance. It relies on a circle of Western-educated princes and advisers to
project an image of modernity that appeals to a West still dependent on
Saudi oil. Many observers of Saudi Arabia forget the role played by these
very princes and their loyal ulama in creating the conditions for radicalism
and violence. What is meant here is not ‘sponsoring terrorism’ but creat-
ing the conditions that make it the only imagined solution. Had Saudis
been allowed to articulate and express alternative religious interpreta-
tions, not many would have resorted to violence. Alternatively, had the
Saudi leadership acted according to its professed symbols and rhetoric,
not many Saudis would have described their regime as a kafir regime.
Conclusion 261

This study has captured several ongoing realities about Saudi Arabia in
the twenty-first century. Despite being subject to authoritarian rule,
Saudis today are engaged in a fierce debate about religion and politics,
previously considered taboo topics. This debate takes place in both tradi-
tional and less traditional spaces, the latter the result of advances in com-
munication technology. This debate is extremely modern as it reflects
concerns over identity and place in the world. In a very short period,
Saudis moved from a localised identity that revolved around kin, tribe,
sect and region to globalisation, before consolidating a national identity.
They celebrated narrow identities while at the same time they endorsed
global religious belonging. They exported their narrow religious dis-
course before they themselves were able to cope with the pressures
exerted by modernity.
The debate and those involved in it do not easily fit ready-made cate-
gories such as traditional, moderate or radical. I hope this book reflects
the way those engaged in the debate can easily move from one category to
another. The more authoritarian rule exerts pressure to contain debate,
the more interpretations proliferate and escape the straitjacket imposed
from above. As the debate disappears from the public sphere, it is bound
to become more radical and dangerous. It lives in the shadow of a huge
religious bureaucracy with its own privileges and power. When the official
establishment became completely co-opted, Sahwis emerged to challenge
its interpretations. With the co-optation of Sahwis, Jihadi interpretations
emerged to challenge both. The process will continue as long as authori-
tarian rule continues to discipline and punish those who offer alternative
interpretations. Because of the previous hegemonic status of Wahhabiyya,
all will try to anchor their discourse within this so-called authentic tradi-
tion. A small minority will try to destroy Wahhabiyya altogether. This
conclusion challenges the ongoing attempts by various groups to renew
religious discourse under the rubric of tajdid al-khitab al-dini (renewing
religious discourse). For this renewal to take place the right context must
be dominant.
As Jihadi violence claimed many lives and triggered a wave of govern-
ment repression, it must be acknowledged that it speeded up religio-
political debate in Saudi Arabia more than any other event in the recent
history of the country. While the official religious establishment reiterates
its discourse of acquiescence, educated Saudis, intellectuals, ulama and
laymen challenge this discourse. People who search for the original
message of Salafiyya, namely the quest for the unmediated word of God,
are currently engaged in redefining the religious field. It seems that not
many Saudis want to reassert the consenting discourse of the official
ulama, although they themselves continue to claim that they hold the keys
262 Contesting the Saudi State

to salvation. Many Saudis struggle to dismantle the three pillars of author-

itarian rule, the historical, theological and political narratives propagated
by the ruling elite and their noblesse détat. Saudis are beginning to imagine
and articulate alternative religious interpretations that promise to free
them from a cumulative religio-political discourse that grew in the shadow
of power. Perhaps this quest will eventually lead to dismantling authoritar-
ian rule itself. Only then Saudis will be fully integrated in the world – not
as idiosyncratic fanatical puritans, suppressed bohemian subjects or
romanticised tribal desert warriors, but as free citizens able to articulate,
choose and live narratives of their own making.


1 For recent balanced scholarly history of the Wahhabiyya, see David Commins,
The Wahhabis Mission and Saudi Arabia, London: I. B. Tauris 2005. Other
sources include Esther Peskes, Muhammad b. Abdalwahhab (1703–92) im
Widerstreit.Untersuchungen zuz Rekonstruktion der Fruhgeschichte derWahhabiya,
Beirut: Steiner, 1993; Guido Steinberg, ‘Religion und Staat in Saudi-Arabien.
Eine Sozialgeschichte der wahhabitischen Gelehrten 1912–1953’, Ph.D.
thesis, Berlin: Free University, 2000; Guido Steinberg, ‘The Wahhabi Ulama
and the Saudi State: 1745 to the Present’, in Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman
(eds.), Saudi Arabia in the Balance, London: Hurst & Co., 2005, pp. 11–34;
Michael Cook, ‘The Expansion of the First Saudi State: The Case of Washm’,
in C. Bosworth, C. Issawi, R. Savory and U. Udovitch (eds.), The IslamicWorld:
From Classical to Modern Times, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988,
pp. 661–99.
2 For a history of the first and second Saudi states see Madawi Al-Rasheed, A
History of Saudi Arabia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2002,
pp. 14–26.
3 Bashir Nafi discusses the rise and decline of the Salafiyya that was associated
with the nineteenth-century reformist modernist trend in the Arab world,
mainly the project of Abduh, al-Afghani, al-Alusi and Rida. See Basheer Nafi,
The Rise and Decline of the Arab-Islamic Reform Movement, London: Institute
for Contemporary Islamic Thought, 2000, p. 45.
4 On revivalism in Islam, see Bruce Lawrence, Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond
Violence, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1998. See also Albert
Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1978–1939, Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1962.
5 The defeat of Egypt in 1967 was a crucial moment for the shift in power to the
advantage of Saudi Arabia. See Madawi Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi
Arabia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 128–34; Madawi
Al-Rasheed, Mazaq al-islah fi al-saudiyya fi al qarn al-wahid wa al-ishrin,
London: Saqi Books, 2005, pp. 9–24.
6 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s brother Sulayman wrote one of
the first critiques of Wahhabiyya in which he reprimanded his brother for
excessive excommunication of other Muslims. See Sulayman ibn Abd

264 Notes to pages 7–7

al-Wahhab, al-Sawaiq al-ilahiyya fi al-radd ala al-wahhabiyya, Beirut: Dhu

al-Faqar, 1997.
7 In the eighteenth cenury the qadi of Mecca, Ahmad bin Zayni Dahlan,
denounced his contemporary, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, in a short
responsa. See Ahmad Dahlan. al-Durar al-saniyya fi al-radd ala al-wahhabiyya,
Beirut: al-Maktaba al-Thaqafiyya, n.d.
8 Sunni ulama who were close to Ottoman officials in Damascus and Baghdad
denounced Wahhabiyya in several volumes that appeared in the eighteenth
century. For an understanding of Salafi–Wahhabi religious debate in
Baghdad, see Hala Fattah, ‘ “Wahhabi” Influences, Salafi Responses: Shaikh
Mahmud Shukri and the Iraqi Salafi Movement, 1745–1930’, Journal of
Islamic Studies 14/2 (2003): 127–48. For an understanding of the confronta-
tion between Iraqi ulama and Wahhabiyya, see Rasul Muhammad Rasul, al-
Wahabiyyun wa al-iraq, aqidat al-shuyukh wa suyuf al-muharibin, Beirut: Riad
El-Rayyes Books, 2005. The Azharite scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali
denounced Wahhabis as ahl al-hadith who use less authentic hadiths to for-
mulate religious rulings’. The Ahl al-Hadith is a group seeking literalist inter-
pretation of the Quran and the Prophetic tradition. This school of thought
was strong in a section of the Muslim community in India, where it emerged.
It is often reported that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab frequented the circle
of one of their scholars, someone by the name of al-Sindi, who was in Mecca
at the time. Ahl al-Hadith had followers in Saudi Arabia and sometimes the
boundaries between them and Wahhabis are blurred. Ahl al-Hadith rejects all
schools of jurisprudence (madhahib) because they involve human opinion and
interpretation, while Wahhabis revere Hanbali fiqh. Muhammad al-Ghazali
promotes a different approach, associated with ahl al-fiqh (people of jurispru-
dence). See Muhammad al-Ghazali, al-Sunna al-nabawiyya bayn ahl al fiqh wa
ahl al-hadith, 13th edn., Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2005.
9 Even in present-day Turkey, considerable intellectual effort, especially in Sufi
circles, is devoted to refuting Wahhabi claims and positions on important
matters of religious doctrine and practice. An Arabic version of a Turkish
website publicises anti-Wahhabi publications for Arabic speakers. See
10 Shii, Zaydi and Ismaili Muslims continue to defend their tradition against
Wahhabi positions that in the past denounced them as innovators. See
Hasan al-Saqqaf, al-Salafiyya al-wahhabiyya, Beirut: Dar al-Mizan, 2005;
Muhammad Mughniyyah, Hathihi hiya al-wahhabiyya, Beirut: Dar al-Jawad,
1982; Ayatollah Hadi Kashif al-Ghita, al-Ajwiba al-najafiyya fi al-radd ala al-
fatawi al-wahhabiyya, Beirut: al-Ghadir, 2004.
11 St John Philby, Arabia of the Wahhabis, London: Constable & Co., 1928;
George Rentz, The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia:
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703/4–1792) and the Beginnings of the
Unitarian Empire in Arabia, London: Arabian Publishing, 2005. In 2005
Rentz’s 1948 thesis was published by a London-based publisher acting on
behalf of a Saudi research centre in an attempt to dispel Western accusations
against Wahhabiyya. For a critical review of Rentz’s thesis, see Madawi Al-
Rasheed, review of Rentz, The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement, in Middle
Eastern Studies 12/10 (2006): 173–7.
Notes to pages 9–10 265

12 Representatives of this genre of literature include Vincenzo Oliveti, Terror’s

Source: The Ideology of Wahhabi-Salafism and its Consequences, Birmingham:
Amadeusbooks, 2001; Craig Ungar, House of Bush House of Saud:The Secret
Relationship between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties, New York:
Scribner, 2004; Bob Woodward, Plan of Attack, New York: Simon & Schuster,
2004; Robert Baer, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold our Souls for
Saudi Crude, New York: Crown, 2003; and Stephen Schwartz, The Two Faces of
Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism, New York: Anchor
Books, 2002.
13 See Hamid Algar, Wahhabism: A Critical Essay, New York: Islamic
Publications International, 2002; Asad Abukhalil, The Battle For Saudi Arabia:
Royalty, Fundamentalism and Global Power, New York: Seven Stories Press,
2004; Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority
and Women, Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.
14 Three Saudi sources in exile take the lead in demonstrating the excessive
interpretations of the Wahhabi tradition. The electronic publications of the
Washington-based Saudi Institute run by Saudi Shii Ali al-Ahmad, the maga-
zine Shuun Saudiyyah, published by the London-based National Coalition for
Democracy in Saudi Arabia, and the al-Hijaz magazine, published by the
National Hijazi Society, all take a clearly anti-Wahhabi position.
15 Salafi Publications, a small publisher based in Canada, defend Wahhabiyya.
See Haneef James Oliver, The Wahhabi Myth: Dispelling Prevalent Fallacies and
the Fictitious Link with Bin Laden, Victoria: Trafford, 2002. See also salafipub-, especially electronic books that denounce the Muslim
Brotherhood, which is accused of corrupting the Salafi creed and encouraging
violence. For a defence of Wahhabiyya in Arabic, see the Saudi website (accessed 16 June 2004).
16 Iris Glosemeyer describes these efforts as a charm-offensive campaign, in
which the regime mobilised its technocrats, businessmen, ulama and acade-
mics to polish the image of the country after 11 September 2001. See Iris
Glosemeyer, ‘Saudi Arabia: Dynamism Uncovered’, in Volker Perthes (ed.),
Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change, Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2004,
pp. 141–69, at p. 157. After 11 September, the regime mobilised women to
defend the realm outside Saudi Arabia as reflected in the number of Saudi
princesses, academics and businesswomen who have been allowed to travel
with official Saudi delegations to the USA and Europe. The daughter of King
Faysal, Princess Loulouwa al-Faysal, made several appearances in Western
capitals, together with Saudi academics and businesswomen. The daughter of
King Abdullah, Princess Adillah, issued statements to the media, an unusual
move in Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the daughter of Prince Talal ibn Abd al-Aziz
was reported to have made public statements claiming that her father has the
right to be considered among heirs to the throne. All female voices are meant
to improve the image of the regime abroad.
17 See Natana DeLong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global
Jihad, London: I. B. Tauris, 2004. DeLong-Bas goes as far as to argue that
Wahhabiyya is a moderate religious interpretation.
18 Gilles Kepel argues that terrorism is a product of the thought of the Muslim
Brotherhood exiles in Saudi Arabia. While he draws attention to the fact that
266 Notes to pages 10–16

Egyptian and Syrian exiles in the 1960s were under strict orders not to ‘inter-
fere’ in local Saudi affairs, he seems to suggest that they did. He goes further
when he attributes current terrorism to their influence on the Saudi popula-
tion. His evidence is drawn from the fact that Muhammad Qutb, the brother
of famous Egyptian Islamist Sayid Qutb, supervised Safar al-Hawali’s doc-
toral thesis and the fact that the Syrian sheikh Muhammad Surur Zayn al-
Abdin might have taught Sheikh Salman al-Awdah in one of the religious
institutes in Buraydah in the 1960s. Both examples provide weak evidence of
the radicalisation of Saudis as a result of two Muslim Brotherhood activists.
The opposite argument can easily be put forward, namely that the local
Wahhabi tradition, especially its emphasis on takfir and jihad, had great influ-
ence on the thought of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood exiles in
Saudi Arabia. See Gilles Kepel, The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West,
Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004, pp. 152–96. These issues will be dis-
cussed in chapter 2.
19 This confusion is common in media reporting on Saudi Arabia.
20 Steinberg addresses schisms within Wahhabiyya in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries. He argues that there were at least two schools within
Wahhabiyya, a radical one (based in Riyadh and Buraydah) and a moderate
one, based in Unayzah in Qasim. Steinberg clearly illustrates that religious
interpretations are grounded in socio-economic conditions. See Steinberg,
‘The Wahhabi Ulama and the Saudi State’. In contemporary Saudi Arabia, it
is more accurate to talk about several strands within Wahhabiyya that are not
necessarily linked to a geographical region.
21 Paul Dresch makes this observation. See Paul Dresch, ‘Societies, Identities
and Global Issues’, in Paul Dresch and James Piscatori (eds.), Monarchies and
Nations: Globalisation and Identity in the Arab States of the Gulf, London: I. B.
Tauris, 2005, pp. 1–33.
22 Bruce Lawrence rightly argues that it is unconvincing to claim that Bin Laden
and his movement is an Arab version of the Red Brigades or the ultra-left
groups that practised terrorism in Europe in the 1970s, or even nineteenth-
century anarchists. See Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World:The Statements
of Osama Bin Laden, London: Verso, 2005, pp. xx. See also Faisal Devji,
Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity, London: Hurst & Co.,
2006. Devji rejects the comparison between Bin Laden and early revolution-
ary movements. He argues that Bin Laden represents a vision that is mystical,
ethical and perhaps heretical, from the point of view of mainstream Islam.
23 Dale Eickelman, ‘Inside the Islamic Reformation’, Wilson Quarterly 22
(1998): 80–98, at p. 82. See also Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim
Politics, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996; and Dale Eickelman and
Jon Anderson, New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
24 The tarajuat (lit. going back, repentance) of Mansur al-Noqaydan and
Mishari al-Thaydi are now well known in the West. Both renounced radical-
ism and made a career out of publicising their ‘reformation’.
25 For internet censorship in Saudi Arabia see Human Rights Watch, The
Internet in the Mideast and North Africa, New York: Human Rights Watch,
Notes to pages 17–23 267

26 A representative report is that of Cheryl Benard. See Cheryl Benard, Civil

Democratic Islam: Partners, Resources, and Strategies, Santa Monica: Rand,
2003. See also Angel Rabasa et al., The MuslimWorld after 9/11, Santa Monica:
Rand, 2004.
27 A study of the elite in Saudi Arabia demonstrates that this kind of research is
extremely difficult as a result of the Wahhabis’ anti-research culture, especially
if the subject of research is the religious elite itself. Muhammad al-Sonaytan
attributes his less than sufficient data on religious scholars to Wahhabi reser-
vations on research. See Muhammad al-Sunaytan, al-Nukhab al-saudiyya
dirasa fi al-tahawulat wa al-ikhfaqat, Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-
Arabiyya, 2004. While it is incredibly easy to publish biographies that praise
the ulama, it is impossible to see them other than as pious guardians of the
Islamic tradition. To say that they are a class set apart and with its own privi-
leges and power amounts to insulting them. Similarly, as expected, biogra-
phies of kings and princes tend to promote mythical narratives.


1 In the twenty-first century Salafis are diverse in their political views on the
legitimacy of existing governments, democracy, elections, human rights and
those of women and minorities as well as many other important issues. Most
importantly, they differ on the strategy that must be adopted vis-à-vis politi-
cal authority. At one extreme there is a trend that accepts total obedience to
rulers and prefers not to initiate any political views. In Saudi Arabia, follow-
ers of this trend are pejoratively referred to as Jamis, after a Madina-based
sheikh, Aman al-Jami. At the other extreme, Salafi Jihadis call for armed
resistance against unjust and kafir rulers. Among those who adopt violence
as a strategy, there are also subgroups. One such group is known as Ikhwan
Burayda. This book will cover some but not all of the dominant and well-
known Salafi trends within Saudi Arabia.
2 Saudi–Wahhabi Salafis denounced the Ottoman Empire as a kafir regime in
the time of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Their objections were centred
on the proliferation of Sufi turuq (sing. tariqa) under the auspices of the
Ottoman sultan, a blasphemy that must be rejected by good Muslims.
However, it is simplistic to reduce the Ottoman–Wahhabi conflict to its reli-
gious dimension. Fattah argues that understanding the Wahhabi revivalist
movement especially in the later period of the nineteenth century was closely
related to the incorporation of the Gulf region in European imperial design
and the shift in trade routes between Europe and Asia. See Hala Fattah, The
Politics of Regional Trade in Iraq,Arabia and the Gulf 1745–1900, Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1997.
3 Several Saudi scholars take it for granted that the Arabian population was
blasphemous and chaotic prior to Wahhabi revivalism. See Abdullah al-
Uthaymin, al-Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Riyadh: Dar al-Ulum,
1992; Uwaidah al-Juhany, Najd before the Salafi Reform Movement: Social,
Political, and Religious Conditions during the Three Centuries Preceding the Rise of
the Saudi State, Reading: Ithaca, 2002; Abdulaziz al-Fahad, ‘The Imama vs.
268 Notes to pages 23–27

the Iqal: Hadari–Bedouin Conflict and the Formation of the Saudi State’, in
Madawi Al-Rasheed and Robert Vitalis (eds.), Counter-Narratives: History,
Contemporary Society, and Politics in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, New York:
Palgrave, 2004, pp. 11–24.
4 Wahhabis identify Hijazis who visit tombs or build domes on graves as
quburis, meaning grave-worshippers. This is also a pejorative way to refer to
the people of Hijaz in general.
5 An example of Wahhabi historiography that was intimately tied with the
movement is the work of Hussein ibn Ghannam, referred to as the Sheikh
and Imam, in which one finds a classic example of Wahhabi demonisation of
Arabian society together with a detailed description of the atrocities that
were inflicted on this society by Wahhabi raids. Ibn Ghannam’s book is one
of the main historical sources on Wahhabiyya. See Hussein ibn Ghannam,
Tarikh najd, Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1994.
6 On contemporary historiography, see Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia,
pp. 188–217.
7 On folk Islam that prevailed among the population of Arabia, especially
women, see Eleanor Doumato, Getting God’s Ear:Women, Islam, and Healing
in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
8 For a historical and theological interpretation of this Islamic obligation, see
Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
9 A vivid description of both the atrocities and gains of the Wahhabis can be
found in the chronicles of the movement’s historians. See Ibn Ghannam,
Tarikh najd.
10 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Masail al-jahiliyya, Riyadh: Dar al-Watan,
1408H, p. 43.
11 For a rationalist critique of ‘blocking the means’, see Abou El Fadl, Speaking
in God’s Name.
12 The composition of majlis al-shura reflects a mixture of religious scholars and
technocrats. For an analysis of the first majlis, see Hrair Dekmejian, ‘The
Rise of Political Islam in Saudi Arabia’, Middle East Journal 48/4 (1994):
627–43. For the Saudi elite in general, see al-Sunaytan, al-Nukhab al-
13 For twentieth century episodes of this dissidence see Madawi Al-Rasheed A
History of Saudi Arabia 2002.
14 Several Wahhabi publications are used in this chapter. One important source
is sheikh Abdulrahman al-Qasim (ed.), al-Durar al-saniyya fi al-ajwiba al-
najdiyya, 16 vols., Riyadh: n.p., 2004, hereafter al-Durar al-saniyya, and
Muhammad al-Shuwayir Abdulaziz ibn Baz majmu fatawi wa maqalat
mutanawiah, vols. V and VI, Jeddah: al-Sabahah, n.d. [1413H], hereafter
Majmu fatawi, in addition to several publications by Muhammad ibn Abd al-
15 Guido Steinberg describes the ecology of this region where the staunchest
supporters of the movement originated. See Guido Steinberg, ‘Ecology,
Knowledge, and Trade in Central Arabia (Najd) during the Nineteenth and
Early Twentieth Centuries’, in Al-Rasheed and Vitalis (eds.), Counter-
Narratives, pp. 77–102, at pp. 78–88.
Notes to pages 28–32 269

16 The Banu Tamim is an ancient sedentary Arabian tribe. Its members lived
in the various oases and towns from Hail in the north to Hawtat Bani Tamim
in the south. Many years of sedentarisation deprived it of its tribal organisa-
tion and structure. Moreover, members of Banu Tamim are found in Gulf
states, Iraq, Egypt and the Levant as a result of a long history of trade and
migration. Several generations of this tribe settled in Zubayr in southern
Iraq, where they formed a Sunni colony.
17 Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, pp. 49–58.
18 One of the main chronicles of Najdi scholars is Abdullah al-Bassam, Ulama
najd khilal thamaniyat qurun, vols. I–VIII, Riyadh: Dar al-Asimah, 1419AH.
See also Abdullah al-Bassam Ulama najd khilal sitat qurun Mecca: Dar
al-Nahda, 1398AH.
19 al-Bassam, Ulama najd khilal thamaniyat qurun.
20 Pierre Bourdieu argues that schools produce the modern technocrat. They
are the most efficient weapon of the state, creating the machinery that oper-
ates within ourselves. In contemporary Western society, of which France is
an example, the school produces ‘state nobility’. See Pierre Bourdieu, The
State Nobility, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996. In places like Saudi Arabia, we
can argue that the Wahhabi ulama and their educational and preaching
efforts over the last century are truly a form of noblesse détat, a religious
‘nobility’ in control of peoples’ minds through their monopoly over educa-
tional institutions.
21 Alexander Bligh, ‘The Saudi Religious Elite (Ulama) as Participants in the
Political System of the Kingdom’, International Journal of Middle East Studies
17/1 (1985): 37–50.
22 Abdulaziz al-Tuwayjiri, Li surata al-layl hatf al-sabah, Beirut: Dar Riyadh al-
Rayyis, 1998, p. 474.
23 I borrow this terminology from the anthropologist Abdullah Hammoudi,
who applied it in the context of Morocco. See Abdullah Hammoudi, Master
and Disciple:The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism, Chicago:
Chicago University Press, 1997.
24 Sheikh Ibn Ibrahim’s biography is constructed from al-Durar al-saniyya.
25 al-Durar al–saniyya, vol. XVI, p. 474.
26 al-Bassam, Ulama najd khilal thamaniyat qurun, vol. I, p. 244.
27 Ibid., pp. 245–6.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid., p. 249.
30 Ibid.
31 al-Durar al-saniyya, vol. XVI, pp. 206–313. Sahwi sheikh Safar
al-Hawali wrote an interpretation of Ibn Ibrahim’s epistle, in which he
highlighted the main themes that dominated the sheikh’s thinking.
See Safar al-Hawali, Sharh risalat tahkim al-qawanin, n.p.: Dar al-Kaima,
32 al-Durar al-saniyyah, vol. XVI, p. 206.
33 Nasir al-Fahad,, accessed 26 November 2003.
34 Bligh, ‘Saudi Religious Elite’, p. 39.
35 See
36 Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, pp. 163–87.
270 Notes to pages 33–41

37 Wahhabi state ulama are not unique in playing this role. For a comparative
study, see Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam:
Custodians of Change, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
38 See and http;//
index/htm, accessed 10 March 2005.
39 Migration as an act of piety and survival is an integral tradition in Islam. For
the early tradition of the Prophet and migration from Mecca to Madina, see
Jonathan Berkey, The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East,
600–1800, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
40 This obligation is clearly demonstrated in the early history of Wahhabiyya.
See Ibn Ghannam, Tarikh najd.
41 Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, 2002.
42 Steinberg, ‘The Wahhabi Ulama’.
43 Majmu fatawi, vol. V, p. 390.
44 Ibid., p. 79.
45 Ibid., p. 342.
46 On the Gulf War of 1990–1, see Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia,
pp. 163–87.
47 Sheikh Muhsin al-Obaykan, ‘Mana ukhruj al-mushrikin min jazirat al-arab’,
al-Sharq al-Awsat, 25 October 2004.
48 On Muslim–infidel relations, see Yohannan Friedman, Tolerance and Coercion
in Islam: Interfaith Relations in the Muslim Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003.
49 Patricia Crone, Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh: Edinburgh
University Press, 2004.
50 On the Kharijites see ibid., pp. 54–64. Current official Saudi discourse refers
to al-Qaida agents as the contemporary Kharijites. See Omar Kamil, al-
Mutatarifun khawarij al-asr, Beirut: Bisan, 2002.
51 al-Durar al-saniyyah, vol. I, p. 73.
52 Ibid., pp. 100–4.
53 Ibid., vol. VIII, pp. 89–90.
54 Ibid., vol. I, pp. 66–7.
55 Ibid., pp. 372–439.
56 Ibid., p. 565.
57 For a biography of Abdullah al-Qasimi, see Yurgen Wasella, al-Qasimi bayn
al-usuliyya wa al-inshiqaq, trans. Muhammad Kibaybo, Beirut: Dar al-Kunuz
al-Adabiyya, 2001.
58 See hayat.htm, accessed 3 May
59 Majmu fatawi, vol. VI, pp. 121–2.
60 Michael Crawford, ‘Civil War, Foreign Intervention, and the Quest for
Political Legitimacy: A Nineteenth Century Saudi Qadi Dilemma’,
International Journal of Middle East Studies 14 (1982): 227–48, at p. 235.
61 On the Ikhwan, see John Habib, Ibn Saud’s Warriors of Islam: The Ikhwan of
Najd and their Role in the Creation of the Saudi kingdom, 1910–1930, Leiden:
Brill, 1978 and Joseph Kostiner, ‘On Instruments and their Designers: The
Ikhwan of Najd and the Emergence of the Saudi State’, Middle Eastern
Studies 21 (1985): 298–323.
Notes to pages 41–46 271

62 Rifat Ahmad, Rasail Juhayman al-Otaybi, Cairo: Madbouli, 2004.

63 Abu al-Bara al-Najdi, al-Kawashif al-jaliyya fi kufr al-dawla al-saudiyya,
London: Dar al-Qasim, 1994.
64 Saad al-Faqih, al-Nitham al-saudi fi mizan al-islam, London: al-Haraka al-
Islamiyya lil islah, 1996; Muhammad al-Masari, al-Adilla al-qatiyya ala adam
shariyat al-dawla al-saudiyya, London: Dar al-Shariyya, 1995.
65 DeLong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam.
66 For a good interpretation of the tradition of jihad in Islam in general, see
Rudolph Peters, Islam and Colonialism: The Doctrine of Jihad in Modern
History, The Hague: Mouton, 1979; Rudolph Peters, Jihad in Classical and
Modern Islam, Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1996. On modern Egyptian inter-
pretations of jihad, see Johannes Jansen, The Neglected Duty, New York:
Macmillan, 1986.
67 Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, p. 42.
68 Peter Sluglett and Marion Sluglett, ‘The Precarious Monarchy: Britain, Abd
al-Aziz ibn Saud and the Establishment of the Kingdom of Hijaz, Najd and
its Dependencies, 1925–1932’, in Tim Niblock (ed.), State, Society and
Economy in Saudi Arabia, London: Croom Helm, 1982, pp. 36–56.
69 Guido Steinberg draws attention to the fact that there is almost a historical
amnesia regarding the Wahhabi ulama who sided with the Ikhwan rebels.
See Steinberg, ‘The Wahhabi Ulama’.
70 Ibid.
71 al-Fahad, ‘The Imama vs. the Iqal’.
72 See chapter 4 in this volume.
73 Lisa Meyer, ‘More Evidence of Saudi Doubletalk: Judge Caught on Tape
Encouraging Saudis to Fight in Iraq’, 26 April 2005, NBC investigation unit.
accessed 28 April 2005. For al-Lohaydan’s view on jihad, see Saleh al-
Lohaydan, al-Jihad fi al-islam, Riyadh: Dar al-Liwa, 1980.
74 See
75 See
76 John Esposito and John Voll (eds.), Makers of Contemporary Islam, Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 10.
77 al-Durar al-saniyyah, vol. XVI, p. 348.
78 This position reiterates Islamic political theory that was promoted by
medieval scholars such as Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) in al-Siyasa al-
shariyya fi islah al-rai wa al-raiyya, Beirut: Dar al-Jil, 1988; Ali al-Mawardi
(991–1031) in al-Ahkam al-sultaniyya wa al-wilayat al-diniyya, Beirut: al-
Arqam, n.d. For a review of Islamic political thought of the medieval period,
see Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age; Crone, Medieval Islamic
Political Thought; and Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought:
From the Prophet to the Present, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
79 Crown Prince Abdullah became king in August 2005. This was the first time
that worldwide coverage of the baya was possible, thanks to Saudi-owned
satellite media and international coverage. Previous bayas – for example,
that of King Fahad in 1982 – were hardly televised outside Saudi Arabia.
80 al-Durar al-saniyyah, vol. I, p. 33 and vol. XVI, p. 153.
81 On modernist revivalism, see Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age.
272 Notes to pages 47–55

82 Joseph Kechichian, ‘The Role of the Ulama in the Politics of an Islamic

State: The Case of Saudi Arabia’, International Journal of Middle East Studies
18 (1986): 53–71.
83 Guido Steinberg describes the low level of religious education among
religious scholars in the nineteenth century. See Steinberg, ‘Ecology,
Knowledge, and Trade’, pp. 85–94 and Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi
Arabia, pp. 49–58. However, the situation prevailed until the mid-twentieth
century, and even today not many Saudi religious scholars have worldwide
recognition for their religious knowledge. Despite the decline of al-Azhar in
recent decades, it has continued to produce scholars whose reputation trav-
elled across the Muslim world.
84 Abdullah al-Uthaymin, al-Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, p. 152. For
another biography of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab see al-Durar al-saniyyah, vols. I and
XVI and Ibn Ghannam, Tarikh najd. In English, George Rentz relies on the
latter source. See Rentz, Islamic Reform Movement.
85 Contrast this lack of theorising Muslim leadership with Sunni reformism in
Yemen. See Bernard Haykal, Revival and Reform in Islam: The Legacy of
Muhammad al-Shawkani, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
On Shii preoccupation with the issue of imama, see Fuad Ibrahim, al-Faqih
wa al-dawla, Beirut: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyya, 1998.
86 Uwaidah al-Juhany draws attention to the concerns of the Najdi population at
the time of the movement. These concerns did not go beyond regulating social
relations and terminating the endemic feuds between various factions in the
oases of central Arabia. See al-Juhany, Najd before the Salafi Reform Movement.
87 Ahmad al-Katib, al-Fikr al-siyasi al-wahhabi qiraa tahliliyya London: Dar al-
Shura lil dirasat wa al-ilam, 2003.
88 Kuwaiti Islamist Hakim al-Mutayri criticises Wahhabi positions on politics.
See Hakim al-Mutayri, al-Huriyya wa al-tawafan, Beirut: al-Muasasa al-
Arabiyya lil Dirasat wa al-Nashr, 2004.
89 Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Masail al jahiliyyah, pp. 12–13.
90 Muhammad Qutb, Jahiliyat al-qarn al-ishrin, 14th ed., Beirut: Dar al-
Shuruq, 1995.
91 Quran, Sura al-nisa, verse 59.
92 Abdulaziz ibn Baz, lecture, 1/4/1417H, see
93 al-Durar al-saniyyah, vol. I, p. 348.
94 al-Mutayri, al-Huriyya wa al-tawafan.
95 al-Quds al-Arabi, 16 May 2005: a Saudi judge sentenced three constitutional
reformers to a period ranging from six to nine years in prison. For further
details see chapter 6.
96 Abdulaziz ibn Baz,
97 al-Mutayri, al-Huriyya wa al-tawafan.
98 Abdulaziz Ibn Baz, interview in al-Dawah magazine, http://www.ibnbaz.
com, 19/12/1415H.
99 This is a reference to the faxes of Saudi Islamist opposition in the mid-1990s.
100 See, accessed 12 May 2005.
101 Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name.
102 See Steinberg, ‘Ecology, Knowledge, and Trade’ on the miserable state of
health and scholarship in central Arabia in the nineteenth century.
Notes to pages 56–70 273

103 Wahhabi scholars today deny that their intellectual ancestors objected to
female education. They insist that they objected to the delivery of education
rather than its principle.
104 According to a survey of past and present scholars’ views on elections,
famous Saudi sheikhs are listed as having reservations, for example
Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Al-Shaykh, Humud ibn Oqla al-Shuaybi, Ali
al-Khodayr and Abdulaziz al-Omar. See http;//
105 Bligh, ‘Saudi Religious Elite’, p. 40.


1 For detailed discussion of the sociological and political impact of the first oil
boom, see Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia, chapter 5.
2 al-Sharq al-Awsat, 18 July 2005.
3 For an account of the rise of religious and other universities in Saudi Arabia,
see Andre Elias Mazawi, ‘The Academic Profession in a Rentier State: the
Professoriate in Saudi Arabia’, Minerva 4 (2005):221–244.
4 Hamad al-Salloum, Education in Saudi Arabia, Washington: Saudi Arabian
Cultural Mission, 1995, p. 70.
5 The Saudi Arabian Information Resource,
6 Al-Salloum, Education in Saudi Arabia, p. 71.
7 The Saudi Arabian Information Resource,
8 James Piscatori, ‘The Evolution of a Wahhabi University’, unpublished con-
ference paper, Oxford, September 2003.
9 Sheikh Salman al-Awdah’s doctoral dissertation dealt with ablution.
10 Piscatori, ‘Evolution’.
11 Omar al-Azi, al-Ikhwan al-saudiyun: al-tayar allathi lam yaqul kalimatuhu
bad’,, accessed 8
June 2005.
12 Farish Noor, NewVoices of Islam, Leiden: ISIM, 2002, p. 20.
13 Turki al-Hamad, Rih al-janna, London: Saqi Books, 2005
14 Qutbists (followers of Sayyid Qutb) refers to a variant of Egyptian Hasan al-
Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, often described as more radical.
Qutb’s brother, Muhammad was a university lecturer in Saudi Arabia.
15 Musa al-Abdulaziz, interview on Idhaat, al-Arabiyya television channel, 29
June 2005.
16 Rabi al-Madkhali, cited in Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abdin, al-Salafiyya
bayn al-wulat wa al-ghulat’, unpublished manuscript, n.d.
17 Awadh al-Qarni, interview, Elaph, 14 May 1426AH. See http:// www.elaph.
18 See several articles assessing the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood on Ikhwani
19 Musa al-Abdulaziz, interview on Idhaat, al-Arabiyya television channel, 29
June 2005.
274 Notes to pages 71–79

20 A typical text is Safar al-Hawali’s letter to Sheikh Abdulaziz ibn Baz, in Kashf
al-ghamma an ulama al-umma, London: Dar al-Hikma, 1991.
21 For a history of the Sahwis in the 1990s, see Madawi Al-Rasheed, ‘Saudi
Arabia’s Islamist Opposition’, Current History 95/597 (1996): 16–22; Al-
Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia. See also Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and
the Politics of Dissent, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999; Dekmejian, ‘The Rise
of Political Islam’; Joshua Teitelbaum, Holier than Thou: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic
Opposition, Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2000.
22 Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abdin, in al-Sunna 40 (1417H), p. 92.
23 Kepel, TheWar for Muslim Minds, pp. 170–96.
24 This theme is developed by Penina Werbner, who distinguishes between
transnationals and true cosmopolitans. Transnationals are identified by their
ability to move, whereas cosmopolitans master the cultures in which they
find themselves. See Penina Werbner, ‘Global Pathways: Working Class
Cosmopolitans and the Creation of Transnational Ethnic Worlds’, Social
Anthropology 7/1 (1999): 17–35.
25 Interview, London November 2004.
26 Ibid.
27 Zayn al-Abdin, al-Sunna 40 (1417H), p. 82.
28 Ibid.
29 Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abdin, in al-Sunna 47 (1418H), p. 93.
30 Jihadi Salafis denounce Sheikh Muhammad Surur and his ‘haraki’ Islam
because he refuses to accept the inevitability of jihad against governments. See
‘Minbar al-tawhid wa al-jihad’,, accessed 5
November 2005.
31 Interview, al-Mustaqilla television channel, 30 January 2005.
32 Prince Khalid al-Faysal on Idhaat, al-Arabiyya television channel, 15 July 2004.
33 Prince Khalid al-Faysal, al-Watan, 7 July 2004.
34 Al-Riyadh, 31 January 2005.
35 Sheikh Musa al-Abdulaziz, on Idhaat, al-Arabiyya television channel, 29 June
36 Rabi al-Madkhali, in Zayn al-Abdin, al-Sunna (1416H), p. 95.
37 On the Egyptian tarajuat, see Muntasir al-Zayat, al-Jamaat al-islamiyya ruyah
min al-dakhil, Cairo: Dar al-Mahrusa, 2005.
38 Several articles appeared in the Western press after 11 September. Some jour-
nalists glorified the ‘courageous men who moved from Jihadi violence to liber-
alism’, loyal to their government and less threatening to the West.
39 Mansur al-Noqaydan, al-Fikr al-jihadi al-takfiri’, al-Riyadh, 11 May 2003.
Al-Noqaydan is right in claiming that Jihadis draw on local religious texts
rather than alien ideas. His story is published in the New York Times. See
Mansur al-Noqaydan, ‘Telling the Truth, Facing the Whip’, New York Times,
28 November 2003. His story is also publicised by American journalists and
on satellite television: for example, Idhaat, al-Arabiyya, 15 September 2004
and 17 September 2005.
40 Khalid al-Ghannami, ‘Sururis and Jihadis: The Raging Wolf and the Buried
Snake’, al-Watan, 30 January 2005. See also
showthread.php?t=144602, accessed 31 January 2005.
41 Ali al-Amim,
Notes to pages 80–91 275

42 Saud al-Qahtani, http;//

43 Muhammad ibn Abd al-Latif Al-Shaykh, ‘Bin Laden wa dawat Muhammad
ibn Abd al-Wahhab’, al-Hayat, 21 March 2002.
44 The obsession with classifying Islamists has ceased to be a purely academic
exercise. It is entangled with strategies and policies of governments in the
West. Nothing exemplifies this like Cheryl Benard’s Rand Report in which she
classifies Islamists according to well-known criteria, for example their views
on relations with the West, women, minority groups, elections, democracy
and other social and political issues. While such classifications may be useful
for the American administration, they fail to account for the fluidity and
hybridity of Islamist movements in an age of increased communication and
shifting boundaries. See Benard, Civil Democratic Islam.
45 The Riyadh Counter-Terrorism Conference (5 February 2005) concentrated
on the intellectual and religious roots of terrorism, finance networks and
money laundering, as well as the security dimension. One important aspect of
terrorism was deliberately excluded: the role of local authoritarian regimes
and their coercive force in creating favourable ground in which terrorism and
Jihadi discourse become meaningful, and capable of resonating with many
groups. Furthermore, the conference failed to address contradictions between
state political discourse and reality, for example the contradiction between
Saudi religious legitimising narrative as defender of Islam against infidels and
its close alliance with the West, which is increasingly seen by Saudi Islamists as
a threat to Islam. A similar conference was sponsored in London in January
2006 and hosted by the Royal United Services.
46 On the Sahwa in the 1990s, see Al-Rasheed, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Islamist
47 See
48 See Abd al-Wahhab al-Turayry, ‘Dawa’,
49 Safar al-Hawali, interview, Bila hudud, al-Jazeera, 5 November 2003.
50 See
51 In a BBC radio programme, the Saudi ambassador to London, Prince Turki
al-Faysal denied that there is such a thing as Wahhabiyya: BBC World Service,
Analysis, 13 April 2005.
52 For Abdulaziz al-Qasim’s research paper presented to Saudi National
Dialogue Forum, see http://metransparent .com/texts/qassem manahej.htm).
For a brief mention of al-Qasim, see Stephane Lacroix, ‘Between Islamists
and Liberals: Saudi Arabia’s New Islamo-liberal Reformist Trend’, Middle
East Journal 58/3 (2004): 345–65.
53 Reuters, ‘Al-Qaida’s Aim in the Kingdom Unlikely to be Achieved’, Reuters,
6 June 2004.
54 See, accessed 5 May 2004.
55 See http;//
56 See, accessed 10 March 2005.
57 Ibid.
58 On the exclusion and deprivation of the northern provinces, see Matruk al-
Falih, Sikaka al-jawf fi nihayat al-qarn al-ishrin, Beirut: Bisan, 2000. Al-Falih
warns that if regional disparity in development and modernisation are not
276 Notes to pages 93–98

addressed, the situation in Saudi Arabia will become volatile in the future. See
Matruk al-Falih, Mustaqbal al-saudiyya al-islah aw al-taqsim, London: Qadaya
al-Khalij, 2002.
59 Muhammad al-Awadhi, ‘Safar al-Hawali: An Example of Early
Understanding’, http://www.ala&,
accessed 5 July 2005.
60 For an assessment of the Saudi position regarding the US invasion of Iraq, see
Al-Rasheed, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Islamist Opposition’.
61 For a Sahwi view on the war, see ‘Bayan hawla al-tahdidat al-amrikiyyah lil
mintaqah’, at http//
62 Nasir al-Omar, ‘Waylun lil arab min sharin qad iqtarab’, at http://www.
63 See ‘Bayan hawla al-tahdidat al-amrikiyyah lil mintaqah’, at http//www.
64 See, accessed
18 November 2004.
65 Salman al-Awdah, interview, Idhaat, al-Arabiyya television channel, 13 July
66 Al-Awajy wrote articles posted on his website attacking Saad al-Faqih,
Muhammad al-Masari, Mansur al-Noqaydan, Mishari al-Thaydi, Juhayr
al-Musaid, Abdulaziz al-Khamis, Ghazi al-Qusaybi and many others, includ-
ing this author. In one article he called upon Prince Khalid al-Faysal, gover-
nor of Asir, to engage in a dialogue with him. When I referred to al-Awajy as
an Islamo-liberal, thus citing a label propagated by a French doctoral student,
he was furious. He regarded the label as an insult. He immediately posted an
article in which he called me umm al-muminin, ‘the Mother of the Faithful’,
an amusing and ironical title. In March 2005 he launched an attack on
Minister Ghazi al-Qusaybi in which he accused him of destroying the Islamic
credentials of the Saudi state and of manipulating King Abdullah. Al-Awajy
was imprisoned for ten days. His website, al-wasatiyya, was suspended. All
his articles were found on For the label ‘Islamo-
liberal’, see Stephane Lacroix, ‘Between Islamists and Liberals: Saudi
Arabia’s New Islamo-liberal Reformists’, Middle East Journal 58/3 (2004):
345–64 and Stephane Lacroix, ‘Islamo Liberal Politics in Saudi Arabia’, in
Paul Aarts and Gerd Nonneman (eds.), Saudi Arabia in the Balance: Political
Economy, Society, Foreign Affairs, London: Hurst & Co., 2005, pp. 35–56.
67 In 2004 Sheikh ibn Zuyar and his son were imprisoned after statements given
to al-Jazeera television channel. The first commented on one of Osama bin
Laden’s statements while the second criticised the government’s decision to
imprison his father who had already served eight years in prison in the 1990s. A
Saudi lawyer, Abdulrahman al-Lahim, was also put in jail after comments on
al-Jazeera. He criticised the government’s decision to imprison Matruk al-
Falih, Abdullah al-Hamid and Ali al-Damini. The three prisoners became
known as constitutional monarchy reformers. See chapter 6 for further details.
68 Muhsin al-Awajy, ‘Saad al-Faqih wa muhawalat kharq al-safinah’, at http://, accessed 17 November
69 Muhsin al-Awajy, ‘Thawabit al-islah’, al-Madina, 26 March 2004.
Notes to pages 99–108 277

70 The most damming criticism of al-Awajy was written by Jihadi sheikh Yusif al-
71 Saud al-Qahtani, ‘Hadith ma al-Awajy’, discussion with al-Awajy, 25 March
2004, at
72 During the fasting month in 2005, Sheikh Salman al-Awdah appeared daily
on MBC television station in a programme called Hajar al-Zawiya, Corner-
stone, to discuss religious issues and current affairs. The programme may
contribute towards creating a pan-Arab reputation for the sheikh. It is also a
desperate Saudi attempt to portray a different face of Islam to a wide Arab


1 On a previous conflict between one Al-Saud ruler who in 1870 sought assis-
tance from the Ottomans, defined as apostates by Wahhabi ulama, see
Abulaziz al-Fahad, ‘From Exclusivism to Accommodation: Doctrinal and
Legal Evolution of Wahhabism’, NewYork Law Review 79 (2004): 485–519.
2 On the twentieth-century Ikhwan conflict with the Al-Saud see Habib, Ibn
Saud’sWarriors and Kostiner, ‘The Ikhwan of Najd’.
3 The main text that is often cited as representative of Egyptian Islamist theori-
sation of jihad is that of Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, al-Faridha al-gaiba
(The Absent Duty). See Peters, Jihad in Classical and Modern Islam, 149–69
and Jansen, The Neglected Duty.
4 Anwar Abdullah, Khasais wa sifat al-mujtama al-wahhabi, Paris: La Librairie
de lOrient, 2005.
5 On the Shiis during this period see Fuad Ibrahim, ‘The Shiite Opposition
in the Eastern Province from Revolution to Accommodation (Case Study:
The Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia)’, Ph.D. thesis, University of London,
6 The latest version of the epistles of Juhayman appeared in Cairo. See Ahmad,
Rasail Juhayman. On the siege of the Mecca mosque and its consequences, see
Fahd al-Qahtani, Zilzal Juhayman fi Mecca, London: Munathamat al-Thawra
al-Islamiyya fi al-Jazira al-Arabiyya, 1987. See also Joseph Kechichian
‘Islamic Revivalism and Change in Saudi Arabia: Juhayman al-Utaybi’s letters
to the Saudi people’, The MuslimWorld 70 (1990): 1–16.
7 On the Afghan jihad and the internationalisation of the conflict see John Cooley,
Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism, London: Pluto
Press, 2000 and Tom Carew, Jihad: the Secret War in Afghanistan, Edinburgh:
Mainstream Publishing, 2000. On Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Diaspora,
see Enseng Ho, ‘Empire through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat’,
Society for Comparative Study of Society and History (2004): 210–46.
8 Majmu fatawi, vol. V, p. 149.
9 Ibid., p. 151.
10 Ibid., pp. 246–7.
11 For a vivid journalistic account of Saudi involvement in the Afghan project,
see Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: The Story of the Afghan Warlords, London: Pan
Books, 2000, pp. 196–206.
278 Notes to pages 108–114

12 Ibid., p. 85.
13 It is very difficult to identify an authentic biography of Bin Laden. An incredi-
ble number of books on him and on al-Qaida have appeared worldwide and
in several languages, most containing elements of both myth and reality. In
September 2005, on-line book shop Amazon listed 320 such books. Abd al-
Bari Atwan offers a reasonable account of the man and his project, based on
interviews with Bin Laden in 1996. See Abd al-Bari Atwan, The Secret History
of al-Qaida, London: Saqi, 2005.
14 Immediately after 11 September polling organisations reported that more
than 90 per cent of Saudis viewed Osama bin Laden favourably. In 2005 he
was viewed favourably by a large number of Muslims in Pakistan (65 per
cent), Jordan (55 per cent) and Morocco (45 per cent). Anthony Cordesman
cited these figures in his testimony before the US Senate Judiciary Committee
‘Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe?’ on 8 November 2005.
15 The transnational dimension of Bin Laden’s project is discussed in Fawaz
Gerges The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2005. Gerges argues that Bin Laden’s followers suffered
from internal struggle that developed around national and ethnic belonging.
However, while these internal struggles are well documented in his book, it is
also noticeable that an Islamic global identity was forged among his followers
who came from all parts of the Muslim world.
16 al-Majallah, 9–15 October 2005.
17 On anti- Shii fatwas see Ibrahim, ‘The Shiite Opposition’.
18 Muta marriage, a temporary marriage between a man and a woman, is con-
sidered lawful in Shii Islam but not so in the Sunni tradition.
19 On Deobandis see Barbara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband
1860–1900, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982. Ahmed Rashid dis-
cusses the role of Deobandi madrasas in the formation of the Taliban. He
argues that Wahhabiyya first came to central Asia in 1912 when a native of
Madina introduced it in Tashkent and the Ferghana Vallley. It went on to reach
Afghanistan from there and from India. See Rashid, Taliban, p. 85. On Saudi
patronage of Asian religious circles, mainly ahl al-hadith and Deobandi schools
since the 1950s, see Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam, pp. 173–7.
20 In the 1970s the writings of twentieth-century Islamist thinkers such as Sayid
Qutb and his brother Muhammad, and the Pakistani Abu al-Ala al-Mawdudi,
were reprinted in Saudi publishing houses.
21 On the participation of Arabs in general in the Afghan jihad, see Abdullah
Anas, Wiladat al-afghan al-arab, London: Saqi Books, 2002; Muhammad
Salah, Waqai sanawat al-jihad, Beirut: Khulud, 2002; Ayman Faraj, Thikrayat
arabi afghani abu jafar al- masri al-qandahari, Cairo: Dar al-Shoruq, 2002; and
Ahmad Zeidan Bin Laden bila qina Beirut: World Book Publishing, 2003.
Most of this literature draws on personal involvement or journalistic encoun-
ters with Jihadis in Afghanistan. To my knowledge, no academic assessment of
the Arab and Saudi involvement in this war has appeared.
22 Rashid, Taliban, p. 202.
23 Osama bin Laden’s activism against the Saudi regime is discussed in several
recent publications. The growing literature on al-Qaida usually touches upon
Bin Laden’s opposition to the regime.
Notes to pages 115–129 279

24 Osama bin Laden’s speech of 15 December 2004, broadcast on al-Jazeera and

other Arab and international satellite stations. The speech can be listened to
on several Jihadi websites, from which the text can also be downloaded. I use
the Arabic text in this book. Bruce Lawrence translated Bin Laden’s state-
ment. See Osama bin Laden, ‘Depose the Tyrants’, in Lawrence Message to the
World, pp. 245–75.
25 Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, p. 192.
26 David Zeidan, ‘The Islamic Fundamentalist View of Life as a Perennial
Battle’, Middle East Review of International Affairs 5/4 (2001): 26–53, at
pp. 26–47
27 A Saudi supporter of al-Qaida and Bin Laden. See internet writer
Abdullah 2005, ‘Hal al-sheikh Osama wa sahbuh min atba al-sheikh
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab?’, showthread.
php?s=36f3c5fe3f52c7d5eb50806410640d23&t=12, accessed 15 April
28 On the presence of Indonesian scholars in the Hijaz, see Mathias Diederich,
‘Indonesians in Saudi Arabia: Religious and Economic Connections’, in
Madawi Al-Rasheed (ed.), Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf,
London: Routledge, 2005, pp. 128–46.
29 For example, Saudi Jihadi sheikh Nasir al-Fahad, like most die-hard
Wahhabis, considers the Ottoman caliphate a kafir state because it encour-
aged Sufism, innovations and shirk. Al-Fahad, who will be discussed in
chapter 4,wrote a pamphlet demonstrating the blasphemy of the Ottomans.
This pamphlet draws on early Wahhabi ulama positions. See Nasir al-Fahad,
al-Dawla al-othmaniyya wa mawqif dawat al-shaykh Muhammad ibn Abd al-
Wahhab minha, at
30 On Saudi religious transnational connections in London, see Madawi
al-Rasheed, ‘Saudi Religious Transnationalism in London’, in Madawi
Al-Rasheed (ed), Transnational Connections and the Arab Gulf, London:
Routledge, 2005, pp. 149–67. On the debate between national and transna-
tional Jihadis, see Gerges, The Far Enemy.
31 Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent.
32 Mansour al-Noqaydan, ‘Kharitat al-islamiyyin fi al-saudiyya wa qisat al-
takfir’, at
33 See al-radd at, accessed
18 October 2005
34 Abu al-Bara al-Najdi, al-Kawashif, p. 13.
35 Ibid., p. 59.
36 Ibid., p. 274.
37 al-Masari, al-Adilla, p. 7.
38 Ibid., p. 62.
39 Ibid., p. 154.
40 Ibid., p. 233–4.
41 Yusif al-Ahmad Ziyarat al-masjid al-nabawi, Madina: General Presidency of
the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, n.d.
42 Ibid.
43 Abdulaziz ibn Baz, Fatawi fi al-aqida, Riyadh: Dar al-Watan, n.d., p. 5.
44 Ibid.
280 Notes to pages 130–135

45 Salih Al-Fawzan, Tanbihat ala ahkam takhus al-muminat Riyadh: Wizarat al-
Shuun al-Islamiyya wa al-Awqaf wa al-Dawa wa al-Irshad, 1412H, pp. 10–11.
46 According to a witty Saudi, Wahhabi ulama issued more than 30,000 fatwas
dealing with women, more than had been produced within the Muslim tradi-
tion for centuries.
47 Abdulaziz ibn Baz and Muhammad al-Uthaymin, Muslim Minorities: Fatwa
Regarding Muslims Living as Minorities, Hounslow: Message of Islam, 1998,
p. 16.
48 Ibid., p. 19.
49 Al-Jumaah, 11/10, 1420H, p. 53.
50 Ibid.
51 Abdulrahman al-Sudays, Idhaat bi munasabat am 2000 Riyadh: Dar al-Watan,
52 For an exposure of al-Sudays’s contradictions, see Madawi Al-Rasheed,
‘al-Saudiyya wa muslimu britaniya: idhaat al-sheikh al-Sudays bayn al-ams wa
al-yawm’, al-Quds al-Arabi, 24 June 2004.
53 For the divisive role of Wahhabi discourse among British Muslims see
Jonathan Birt, ‘Wahhabism in the United Kingdom: Manifestations and
Reactions’, in Madawi Al-Rasheed (ed.), Transnational Connections and the
Arab Gulf, London: Routledge, pp. 168–84.
54 Despite billions spent on the Afghan jihad, the majority of Afghan political
parties backed Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Similarly,
in Britain, where Saudi-sponsored religious institutions and charities flour-
ished, several British Muslims supported Saddam and condemned the Saudi
regime for its alliance with the West. According to Ahmed Rashid, Saudi
Arabia failed to develop a national-interest-based foreign policy. See Rashid,
Taliban, p. 199.
55 Madawi Al-Rasheed, ‘Localizing the Transnational and Transnationalizing
the Local’, in Madawi Al-Rasheed (ed.), Transnational Connections and the
Arab Gulf, London: Routledge, 2005, pp. 1–18, p. 9.


1 After Palestine, the Afghan jihad remains the second and most important
experience that captures the imagination of Jihadis in their literature.
Recently, other locations have become equally important for the second gen-
eration of Jihadis – for example, Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya and, more
recently, Iraq.
2 For a chronology of violence in 2003 and 2004, see Arab News, 26 April 2004.
For an analysis of violence from a security perspective, see Anthony
Cordesman and Nawaf Obaid, National Security in Saudi Arabia: Threats,
Responses, and Challenges, Westport: Praeger Security International, 2005,
pp. 109–36, A more nuanced interpretation is Roel Meijer, ‘The “Cycle of
Contention” and the Limits of Terrorism in Saudi Arabia’, in Aarts and
Nonneman (eds.), Saudi Arabia in the Balance, pp. 271–311.
3 The assessment of the intellectual origins of Jihadis polarised the scholarly
community, journalists and intelligence services. Among academics, there are
Notes to pages 135–137 281

those who argue that Jihadism originates from Wahhabi sources (Abukhalil,
The Battle For Saudi Arabia; Algar, Wahhabism). There are also those who
argue that the ideology and practice of Jihadism is alien to Saudi Arabia; for
example, Natana DeLong-Bas absolves Wahhabism from any responsibility
for the intellectual roots of Jihadi thought (DeLong-Bas, Wahhabi Islam).
Maha Azzam also argues that the Jihadi thought of al-Qaida is rooted in the
Egyptian radical Islamist trend rather than in Wahhabi sources (Maha Azzam,
‘Al-Qaeda: The Misunderstood Wahhabi Connection and the Ideology of
Violence’ London: Chatham House, 2003, briefing paper 1). Other analysts
differ in their assessment of the origins of Jihadism. A Saudi convert from
Jihadism to ‘rational’ Islam argues that Jihadi thought has its roots in the local
Wahhabi tradition (Mansur al-Noqaydan, al-Riyadh, 11 May 2003). I am